Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders unveiled his education policy plan on Saturday – a comprehensive 10-point agenda that calls for the end of for-profit charter schools, creates a salary floor for public school teachers, guarantees free school meals for all students and expands after school and summer school programs.
The 2020 hopeful’s policy proposal adds to the already robust debate in the Democratic primary regarding education, but like many Sanders proposals, comes with many promises but few specifics as to how it will be paid for.
In a speech in Orangeburg, South Carolina, on the anniversary weekend of the historic Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision that ruled that segregation in public schools was unconstitutional, Sanders argued that education is a social justice issue. He promised to combat racial discrimination and school segregation by tripling Title 1 funding and executing desegregation orders.
“Every child has a right to a quality K-12 education, regardless of your race, regardless of your income, and regardless of your zip code,” Sanders said. “For too long, we have seen devastating education funding cuts used to pay for massive tax breaks for a handful of corporations and billionaires. When we are in the White House, that greed is going to end.”
The Vermont independent senator proposed a salary floor of $60,000 a year for teachers tied to cost of living and a boost in the above-the-line tax deduction for out of pocket expenses on supplies. Sanders isn’t the first 2020 candidate calling for a hike in teacher pay, California Sen. Kamala Harris proposed a plan that would increase teacher pay by 23%.
Sanders also rolled out a plan to offer universal free meals to public school students. He called for free breakfast, lunch and snacks year-round and an incentive program to provide the food from local sources. He also called for an expansion of after school and summer education programs, promising to spend at least $5 billion a year.
Sanders also called for a complete ban on for-profit charter schools and a moratorium on the funding of all public charter school expansion until a national audit on the schools has been completed. Sanders will also promise to halt the use of public funds to underwrite all new charter schools if he is elected president.
His call to rein in charter schools was lauded by Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers. In a statement to CNN, she called the proposal “vitally important” and said that it would provide real checks and balances for the charter school system.
“For the last several decades the unregulated growth of private charter schools has siphoned off money from public schools, with little protection against fraud, and little attention paid to equity or quality when it comes to educating kids,” Weingarten wrote. “The Senator’s plan takes tangible steps toward making the charter school industry accountable to parents and the public.”
But Amy Wilkins, senior vice president of advocacy at the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, said that Sanders is ignoring evidence that charter schools have helped thousands of children in at-risk situations.
“Sanders’ call is out of touch – as usual – with what African Americans want,” Wilkins said in a statement to CNN. “More disturbing, the Senator – for personal political gain – would literally lock African American students into schools that have failed them for generations.”
While Sanders did not offer up specific funding sources for the plan, he did allude to the fact that rolling back tax cuts enacted during the Trump Administration would help to foot the bill.
“If Donald Trump and his family could get more than $880 million in special tax breaks to build a real estate empire, we can damn well make sure every kid in America gets a good education, even if they don’t live in one of Mr. Trump’s luxury apartment buildings,” Sanders said. “It’s time for Donald Trump and the top 1% to pay a hell of a lot more in taxes than they are today.”
The major policy roll-out comes in the midst of a massive tour of four southern states – all with specific electoral significance and a time where polls show the Vermont senator slipping behind former Vice President Joe Biden. Two national polls taken in the last month – one from Fox News the other from CNN – show Sanders dropping 6 points and 4 points, respectively. Sanders though remains locked in a solid second place and unlike many in the vast field of Democratic candidates, he enjoys a significant financial war chest. Those resources will allow him to compete beyond the first few early voting states.