Finally, Democratic candidates talk about education in a debate. But nobody raised this key issue.

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Finally, after three debates among Democratic presidential candidates with scarcely a question about education, a moderator, Linsey Davis of ABC News, raised the issue Thursday night. She asked some good questions — even if some candidates tried to skirt them or stated as fact things that may not, in fact, be true.

It wasn’t a particularly revelatory discussion, with candidates generally sticking to their talking points. But it did touch on some key subjects, including school segregation, charter schools, teacher pay, student debt and universal pre-K.

Some important issues were briefly raised, such as when Julián Castro, the former housing and urban development secretary in the Obama administration, said that improving schools cannot be divorced from housing, health care and social policy: “Our schools are segregated because our neighborhoods are segregated.” Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) raised another key issues when he noted that the United States has one of the world’s highest child poverty rates, which is a factor in academic achievement.

But the one thing that nobody discussed onstage is what many public education activists see as the root of public education’s problems: the funding system, which relies heavily, though not exclusively, on property taxes. The obvious result is that poorer neighborhoods have fewer funds and more cash-strapped schools. Federal money intended to help close the gap hasn’t come close.

According to the Learning Policy Institute, a California nonprofit think tank founded by Linda Darling-Hammond, a highly respected educator and researcher who is chairwoman of the California Board of Education: “The highest-spending districts in the United States spend nearly 10 times more than the lowest-spending, with large differentials both across and within states.” In most states, it says, children who live in low-income neighborhoods attend the schools most deprived of resources.

It said in this 2019 report:

On average, school districts serving the largest concentrations of students of color receive approximately $1,800 less per student in state and local funding than those serving the fewest students of color, and the differentials are even greater within states. For example, in Illinois, per-pupil funding ranged from $8,500 to $32,000 in 2016, with suburban districts in Cook County outspending nearby Chicago by more than $10,000 per pupil.

The great divide in funding comes largely from reliance on local property taxes. Districts with higher property values bring in more property tax revenues and provide correspondingly higher funding for schools than poorer districts do. States typically offset these disparities to some extent, but rarely provide an equitable system that can respond to student needs. Funding disparities are so acute and widespread that lawsuits have been filed in more than 40 states in an attempt to remedy inequities.

Davis approached the subject, but never fully got there, with this question to Sen. Cory Booker (N.J.):

It was 65 years ago this year that the Supreme Court outlawed racial segregation in public schools. Yet for millions of students of color today, segregation remains a reality. Nonwhite districts typically receive $2,200 less per student than those in white districts. This means older books, less access to computers and often worse outcomes. What is your plan to address segregation? And I’m not just talking about the achievement gap, but I’m talking about the opportunity gap in education.

Booker talked about his controversial effort to overhaul schools when he was mayor of Newark, which focused on school choice and the use of student test scores to evaluate teachers. He didn’t mention that it faced fierce opposition from many Newark residents or that one of his triumphs was just eliminated.

Booker said, as he often does, that he raised teachers’ wages but didn’t mention that the 2012 contract with the teachers union linked raises and bonuses to test scores, which assessment experts say is not reliable or valid in high-stakes situations. He also didn’t mention that the school district and the union agreed last month on a contract eliminating that linkage.

So what other education subjects did the candidates discuss?

Davis began the education discussion with a question to entrepreneur Andrew Yang that goes to the heart of one of the most important debates in education today: school choice, specifically charter schools. They are publicly financed but privately operated, sometimes by for-profit companies. About 6 percent of America’s schoolchildren attend a charter.

Charters used to enjoy significant bipartisan support. But more recently, Democrats have backed away as opponents have accused the charter movement of seeking to privatize public education and taking money away from cash-strapped districts. So Davis asked Yang, a supporter of charter schools, this question:

You’re the most vocal proponent on this stage for charter schools. You have said that Democrats who want to limit them are, quote, “just jumping into bed with teachers unions and doing kids a disservice.” Why isn’t taxpayer money better spent on fixing traditional public schools?

Yang was not eager to wrap himself in the charter banner Thursday night, pivoting by saying, “Let me be clear. I am pro-good school. I’ve got a kid. One of my little boys just started public school last week and I was not there because I was running for president.”

He continued, never mentioning charters, but did say that “the data clearly shows that 65 to 70 percent of our students’ outcomes are determined outside of the school.” There is data that shows that, but some data shows different percentages. His overall point that outside-school factors contribute more to student achievement than in-school factors is sound, but data points can be slippery things.

Other examples included:

Sen. Kamala D. Harris (Calif.) talked about the importance of teachers and her plan to raise their pay with federal funds: “If a black child has a black teacher before the end of third grade, they’re 13 percent more likely to go to college. If that child has had two black teachers before the end of third grade, they’re 32 percent more likely to go to college.”

Research does show a positive long-term impact on black students who have had black teachers, and there is a 2018 study by Johns Hopkins University and American University researchers that advances the data points Harris cited. There are, though, other studies that show the same effect but with different data points.

While answering a question about what responsibility he thinks “Americans need to take to repair the legacy of slavery in our country,” former vice president Joe Biden said: “A kid coming from a very poor school, a very poor background, will hear 4 million words fewer spoken by the time they get there.”

There is no definitive evidence about how many words students from low-income families hear when they are young compared to more privileged students. The “word gap” notion comes from a 1992 book that had details of a study done with a total of 42 families that concluded kids from poor families hear 30 million fewer words by age 3 than more privileged students. That was debunked with another study, as NRP reported, in 2017, that said the word gap was more like 4 million. The results of that study have also been questioned.

Biden came closer when saying there is one school psychologist for every 1,500 students; there were an estimated 1,381 students to 1 psychologist in the 2014-2015 school year, data from National Association of School Psychologists show.

Here’s the transcript of the education discussion during the debate:

Davis: I’d like to have an academic discussion now about education.

Mr. Yang, we’ll stay with you. Here in Houston, the school district is facing yet another year of spending cuts. Like schools across the country, the system faces many challenges. One of them: Thousands of students are leaving traditional public schools and going to charter schools.

You’re the most vocal proponent on this stage for charter schools. You have said that Democrats who want to limit them are, quote, “just jumping into bed with teachers unions and doing kids a disservice.” Why isn’t taxpayer money better spent on fixing traditional public schools?

Yang: Let me be clear, I am pro-good school. I’ve got a kid. One of my little boys just started public school last week and I was not there because I was running for president.

(Laughter)

So, we need to pay teachers more because the data clearly shows that a good teacher is worth his or her weight in gold.

(Applause)

We need to lighten up the emphasis on standardized tests, which do not measure anything fundamental about our character or human worth.

(Applause)

But here’s the big one. The data clearly shows that 65 to 70 percent of our students’ outcomes are determined outside of the school. We’re talking about time spent at home with the parents, words read to them when they’re young, stress levels in the house, income, type of neighborhood.

We’re putting money into schools, and educators know this: We’re saying you’re 100 percent responsible for educating your kids, but you can only control 30 percent. They all know this. The answer is to put money directly into the families and neighborhoods to give our kids a chance to learn and our teachers a chance to teach.

(Applause)

Davis: Mayor Buttigieg, 45 seconds to respond.

Pete Buttigieg (mayor of South Bend, Ind.): Step one is appoint a secretary of education who actually believes in public education.

(Applause)

I believe in public education. And to strengthen it, some things are very complex, for preparing for a future where knowledge is at your fingertips, but we have got to teach more to do with critical thinking and social and emotional learning. Some of it is extremely simple. We have just got to pay teachers more. And we have got to lift up the teaching profession.

I always think of a story from South Bend of friends who hosted exchange students from Japan. They had a student one year who wanted to be a teacher. And they kept in touch with her when she went back to Japan and to college. She took the exam to try to become a teacher in a society that really regards teachers and compensates teachers well. And she came up just short.

So, you know what she did? Since she was academically good but couldn’t quite make the cut to be a teacher, she had a fallback plan. She became a doctor. That is how seriously some countries treat the teaching profession. If we want to get the results that we expect for our children, we have to support and compensate the teaching profession. Respect teachers the way we do soldiers and pay them more like the way we do doctors.

(Applause)

Davis: Sen. Warren, to use Mr. Yang’s term, are you just jumping into bed with teachers unions?

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (Mass.): You know, I think I’m the only person on this stage who has been a public school teacher.

(Applause)

I had wanted to be a public school teacher since I was in second grade. And let’s be clear in all the ways we talk about this, money for public schools should stay in public schools, not go anywhere else.

(Applause)

I’ve already made my commitment. I will — we will have a secretary of education who has been a public school teacher.

(Applause)

I think this is ultimately about our values. I have proposed a two-cent wealth tax on the top one-tenth of 1 percent in this country. That would give us enough money to start with our babies by providing universal child care for every baby age zero to 5, universal pre-K for every 3-year-old and 4-year-old in this country.

Davis: Thank you, senator.

Warren: Raise the wages of every child-care worker and preschool teacher in this country, cancel student loan debt for 95 percent of the folks who’ve got it.

(Applause)

DAVIS: Thank you, senator.

Warren: And strengthen our unions. This is how we build an America that reflects our values, not just where the money comes from with the billionaires and corporate executives.

Davis: Senator Harris, 45 seconds to respond.

Harris: My first-grade teacher, Mrs. Frances Wilson, God rest her soul, attended my law school graduation. I think most of us would say that we are not where we are without the teachers who believed in us.

I have offered in this campaign a proposal to deal with this, which will be the first in the nation, federal investment, in closing the teacher pay gap, which is $13,500 a year. Because right now, in our public schools, our teachers, 94 percent of them are coming out of their own pocket to help pay for school supplies. And that is wrong.

I also want to talk about where we are here at TSU [Texas Southern University], and what it means in terms of HBCUs [historically black colleges and universities]. I have as part of my proposal that we will put $2 trillion into investing in our HBCUs for teachers, because —

(Applause)

Because, because, one, as a proud graduate of a historically black college and university, I will say — I will say that it is our HBCUs that disproportionately produce teachers and those who serve in these many professions, but also —

Davis: Thank you, senator.

Harris: But this is a critical point, if a black child has a black teacher before the end of third grade, they’re 13 percent more likely to go to college.

(Applause)

If that child has had two black teachers before the end of third grade, they’re 32 percent more likely to go to college. So, when we talk about investing in our public education system, it is at the source of so much. When we fix it, that will fix so many other things. We must invest in the potential of our children.

Davis: Thank you, senator. Senator Sanders, 45 seconds.

Harris: And I strongly believe you can judge a society based on how it treats its children, and we are failing on this issue.

Davis: Thank you, senator.

(Applause)

Sanders: Guess what?

(Laughter)

You’re guessing, all right, here’s the answer: We are the wealthiest country in the history of the world. And yet, we have the highest child poverty rate of almost any country on Earth. We have teachers in this country who are leaving education because they can’t work two or three jobs to support themselves, which is why, under my legislation, we’ll move to see that every teacher in America [makes] at least $60,000 a year.

(Applause)

What we will also do is not only have universal pre-K, we will make public colleges and universities and HBCUs debt-free. And what we will always also do, because this is an incredible burden on millions and millions of young people who did nothing wrong except try to get the education they need, we are going to cancel all student debt in this country.

(Applause)

Davis: Thank you, senator. Thank you, senator.

Sanders: And we are going to do that by imposing a tax on Wall Street speculation.

(Applause)

Davis: Thank you, senator.

Mr. Vice President, I want to come to you and talk to you about inequality in schools and race. In a conversation about how to deal with segregation in schools back in 1975, you told a reporter, “I don’t feel responsible for the sins of my father and grandfather, I feel responsible for what the situation is today, for the sins of my own generation, and I’ll be d—– if I feel responsible to pay for what happened 300 years ago.”

You said that some 40 years ago. But as you stand here tonight, what responsibility do you think that Americans need to take to repair the legacy of slavery in our country?

Biden: Well, they have to deal with the — look, there’s institutional segregation in this country. And from the time I got involved, I started dealing with that. Redlining banks, making sure that we are in a position where — look, you talk about education. I propose that what we take is those very poor schools, the Title I schools, triple the amount of money we spend from $15 [billion] to $45 billion a year. Give every single teacher a raise, the equal raise to getting out the $60,000 level.

Number two, make sure that we bring in to help the teachers deal with the problems that come from home. The problems that come from home, we need — we have one school psychologist for every 1,500 kids in America today. It’s crazy.

The teachers are — I’m married to a teacher. My deceased wife is a teacher. They have every problem coming to them. We have — make sure that every single child does, in fact, have 3-, 4- and 5-year-olds go to school. School. Not day care. School. We bring social workers in to homes and parents to help them deal with how to raise their children.

It’s not that they don’t want to help. They don’t — they don’t know quite what to do. Play the radio, make sure the television — excuse me, make sure you have the record player on at night, the — the — make sure that kids hear words. A kid coming from a very poor school — a very poor background will hear 4 million words fewer spoken by the time they get there.

Davis: Thank you, Mr. Vice President.

Biden: There’s so much we — no, I’m going to go like the rest of them do, twice over, okay?

(Applause)

Because here’s the deal. The deal is that we’ve got this a little backward. And by the way, in Venezuela, we should be allowing people to come here from Venezuela. I know Maduro. I’ve confronted Maduro.

Number two, you talk about the need to do something in Latin America. I’m the guy that came up with $740 million to see to it those three countries, in fact, changed their system so people don’t have to chance to leave. You’re all acting like we just discovered this yesterday. Thank you very much.

Davis: Thank you very much.

Secretary Castro?

Castro: Thank you very much. Well, that’s — that’s quite a lot.

Biden: (Off-mike)

(Laughter)

Castro: But, you know — I grew up in one of those neighborhoods that folks have talked about and a neighborhood that was grappling with the legacy of segregation. In fact, in two public school districts that were involved in a 1973 Supreme Court case challenging how Texas financed its schools.

And I know that today our schools are segregated because our neighborhoods are segregated. Now, I have an education plan, like a lot of folks up here, that would pay teachers more, that would recruit diverse ranks of teachers, that would invest in our public schools, but I also believe that we have to connect the dots to uplift the quality of life to invest in housing opportunity, to invest in job opportunity, to invest in community schools that offer resources like parents able to go back and get their GED, and health-care opportunities, and those things that truly ensure that the entire family can prosper.

Those are the types of things that we need to do, in addition to lifting up our public schools. You asked a second ago about charter schools. Look, it is a myth that charter schools are better than public schools. They’re not.

(Applause)

Davis: Thank you, secretary.

Castro: And so while I’m not categorically against charter schools, I would require more transparency and accountability from them than is required right now.

Davis: Senator Booker, coming to you now. It was 65 years ago this year that the Supreme Court outlawed racial segregation in public schools. Yet for millions of students of color today, segregation remains a reality.

Nonwhite districts typically receive $2,200 less per student than those in white districts. This means older books, less access to computers and often worse outcomes. What is your plan to address segregation? And I’m not just talking about the achievement gap, but I’m talking about the opportunity gap in education.

Booker: So, I’m hearing a lot of conversations on the stage that — and the way we talk about communities of color. Look, I live in a black and brown community below the poverty line. I’ve lived in public housing projects almost for a decade and saw the anguish of parents who are just so deeply frustrated that they don’t have a school that serves their genius.

I think I’m the only person on the stage — even though I had no formal authority as mayor to run a school system — I stepped up and took responsibility for our schools, and we produced results. A lot of folks here are talking about raising teacher salary. We actually did it in Newark, New Jersey.

And we didn’t stop there. Yeah, we closed poor-performing charter schools, but, dagnabbit, we expanded high-performing charter schools. We were a city that said we need to find local solutions that work for our community. The results speak for themselves. We’re now the number one city in America for Beat the Odds schools, from high poverty to high performance.

Strategies like investing in our children work. And I’ll tell you this. I am tired of us thinking about these problems isolated, disconnected from other issues.

That’s why my friend, Secretary Castro, is 100 percent right. We are in the reality we are right now because, Mr. Vice President, of overtly racist policies, not 400 years ago, just in my lifetime, that were redlining communities, disinfesting in communities, and more than just that, my kids are not only struggling with racial segregation and housing and the challenges of underfunded schools, but they’re also struggling with environmental injustice.

If you’ve talked to someone who’s a parent of a child has had permanent brain damage because of lead, you’ll know this is a national problem because there’s over 3,000 jurisdictions in America where children have more than twice the blood lead levels of Flint, Michigan.

Davis: Thank you, senator.

Booker: And so, if I’m president of the United States, it is a holistic solution to education, from raising teacher salary, fully funded special education, but combating the issues of poverty, combating the issues of racial segregation, combating the issues of a criminal justice system.

Davis: Thank you, senator.

Booker: That takes parents away from their kids, and dealing with environmental justice as a major pillar of any climate policy.

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