When it comes to K-12 education policy, this is not Obama's Democratic party. Today's Democrats are less privatization/"education reform" friendly and more interested in supporting and improving public — that is, district-based — schools with a two-pronged approach: make the schools a better place to learn and make the world outside of school a better place for students to live.
When Obama came to office in 2009, he was faced with two possible approaches to improving K-12 education. One was to put the blame for poor test scores on individual schools and figure out ways to force them to up their game. The other was to look at the world outside schools for factors affecting students' successes and failures, then try to improve the quality of students' lives as a path toward improving their school achievement. This isn't a binary choice, of course. Most people understand that good schools and a better environment outside of school contribute to students' attitudes and achievement. It's a question of emphasis.
Obama's education advisor during his 2008 campaign was Linda Darling-Hammond, a college professor and author who put a great deal of emphasis on improving students' lives outside of school. Instead of elevating her to Education Secretary, Obama chose Arnie Duncan, one of the people he brought with him from Chicago. Duncan had been the CEO of Chicago Public Schools and focused on the role of schools, public and charter, in helping or harming student achievement. Putting Duncan at the education department helm meant continuing the policies of the Bush administration: emphasizing high stakes testing, heaping praise on "great schools" while shaming schools with low test scores, and increasing the number of charter schools.
Since 2009, faith in the value of high stakes testing has faded and charter schools have lost their "new kid on the block" luster. Democrats' education policy emphasis has moved away from the Obama years. You can see the change on the national, state and local levels, but the clearest way to put a spotlight on current K-12 policy proposals is to look at positions taken by the leading presidential candidates.
I went through the K-12 position papers of Joe Biden
, Elizabeth Warren
and Bernie Sanders
. I haven't read the positions of all the other candidates — too many candidates, too little time — but those I have read are less detailed than the three front runners but not different in overall emphasis.
I was a bit surprised to find that Biden's education positions were quite similar to those of Warren and Sanders. Biden differed in leaving out any mention of charter schools while both Warren and Biden want to clamp down on charters, or high
stakes testing, which Warren and Sanders want to deemphasize or eliminate — not surprising since Biden was part of Obama's pro-charter, pro-testing administration — but otherwise the differences were reasonably small.
Here's a quick overview of the three candidates' education proposals. I'm not going to dwell on the finer distinctions between their statements, since everything they say is aspirational. None of them can hope to enact their entire program if they become president, so for this discussion, the direction they're heading is more important than how they dot their i's and cross their t's.
I'm beginning with proposals based in the community and the non-instructional parts of school, since those indicate the greatest changes from the emphases of the Obama administration. Then I move into classroom-based proposals.
Integration. All three want to spend more money and effort on desegregating schools. Plans range from more money for school transportation and increasing enforcement of the Civil Rights Act to integrating communities. (More on Warren's Redlining Reparations and other community-based integration plans at the end of the post)
Expand Access to Early Childhood Education. The plans range from significantly increasing early childhood education to making it universally available.
Expand Free Breakfast and Lunch Programs. The plans range from canceling school lunch debt to offering year-round, free school meals available to all students.
Community Schools. All three candidates make strong statements about the need to bring a variety of social and health care services into the schools.
Equitable Funding. All three want to get rid of the disparity between funding for schools with low and high income students. They propose tripling or quadrupling federal Title 1 funding, which goes to schools with a large percentage of low income students.
Raise Teacher Pay. The proposals range from general statements to making $60,000 the minimum teacher salary.
Increase Teacher Diversity. Proposals range from interesting high school students of color in teaching to working with HBCUs (Historically black colleges and universities) and other MSIs (Minority Serving Institutions) to recruit and prepare teachers.
Improve Services For Students With Disabilities And ELL Students. All three want to increase federal funding and improve access and educational opportunities.
Limit The Expansion Of Charter Schools. Ideas include eliminating for-profit charters, limiting money for charter expansion, increasing transparency and oversight and making school districts the only charter authorizers. (More on Warren's charter recommendations below)
That's the basic K-12 lay of the land for the three presidential front runners. It's also a reasonably accurate outline of the direction the Democratic party is heading.
Not surprisingly, the position paper by Elizabeth "I have a plan for that" Warren has the most detailed analysis of problems, including links to outside articles and research papers, and the most specific proposals. Here are some specifics from her plans concerning integration and charter schools. (Full disclosure: Warren is currently my first choice to be my first choice for Democratic presidential candidate — subject to change without further notice.)
Warren's Redlining Reparations:
Warren emphasizes the need to integrate neighborhoods both as an overall societal goal and a way to increase school integration. Discrimination in housing sales, often by "redlining" areas where black home buyers wouldn't be offered bank loans, has helped increase segregation and the wealth inequality between black and white families. Warren suggests "a historic new down payment assistance program that promotes integration by giving residents of formerly redlined areas help to buy a home in any community they choose."
Warren also suggests getting rid of zoning laws which restrict the building of low income homes and apartments in areas with expensive homes. She would establish "a $10 billion competitive grant program that offers states and cities money to build parks, roads, and schools if they eliminate the kinds of restrictive zoning laws that can further racial segregation."
Warren's Charter School Proposals.
Warren and Sanders both want to eliminate for-profit charter schools, but that in itself wouldn't accomplish much. Very few states allow for-profit charters (Currently Arizona may be the only one, though I'm not certain about that). Warren's ban also covers charters that "outsource their operations" to for-profit Charter Management Organizations. Charters often send the majority of their taxpayer-funded money to CMOs which act much like school district administrations, overseeing finances, hiring, curriculum, etc. Nonprofit charter funds can turn into big money for the people who run for-profit CMOs.
Warren also wants to increase charter school transparency and accountability. That includes a "crack down on union-busting and discriminatory enrollment, suspension, and expulsion practices in charter schools, and require boards to be made up of parents and members of the public, not just founders, family members, or profit-seeking service providers."