I love a woman with a plan! And, Senator Warren, it seems like you have a plan for just about everything. There are currently 50 plans listed on your campaign website, outlining your goals for America for 2021 and beyond.
But there is a glaring omission. Fifty plans—and not a single one addresses the systemic problems in K-12 education.
Don’t get me wrong—I know you haven’t been entirely silent on education. I love that you want voters to know you are a former public school teacher, because that’s an important part of my identity, too. And you’re right—it would be fabulous to have a teacher in the White House!
You’ve certainly been vocal on the campaign trail about your proposals to expand pre-kindergarten and make college more affordable. The problem is that your “cradle to college” proposals are more accurately just “cradle AND college”—with nothing to write home about in between.
This gives me pause. You’ve said you believe that there is nothing in this country more important than the education of our children, but you’ve done little more than express your intent to make “robust investments in public education.” Not very specific for the candidate whose tagline is, “I have a plan for that!”
Why Is There No Comprehensive Warren Plan for K-12 Education?
Perhaps your plan is still evolving. But more likely you know that putting your ideas on paper will undoubtedly cost you support from at least one of the factions in the trite education wars.
We’ve had a few indications about what such a plan might include. For instance, your pledge to tap the expertise of a professional educator as the nation’s school chief is a smart one. Because I’m a teacher, too, I’m sure we can agree that nobody knows teaching like teachers. Let’s just make sure that teacher has some bona fide policy experience as well, OK?
And I have to thank you for being an unwavering and vocal critic of U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. Creating “DeVos Watch” to act as a watchdog over the Department of Education was, unfortunately, a necessary endeavor as DeVos has worked to remove civil rights protections for students of color, students with special needs and LGBTQ+ students, and to roll back guidelines that protect students from sexual assault. We need advocates like you to call DeVos to task for failing America’s students.
You’ve also zeroed in on a number of vexing problems in education, such as meager and insufficient salaries for teaching professionals, the need for increased special education funding and free universal childcare and early learning, and you’ve hit it out of the park with your plans for canceling student loan debt and making college affordable and accessible for all students. You also want to address the role of an overzealous gun industry in school safety and gun violence, you support targeted resources to reduce class size and you’ve made it clear that you intend to uphold strong collective bargaining rights.
And I can tell you know that race matters. You’ve promised a minimum $50 billion in federal funds for HBCUs, a $100 million investment in Pell Grants and vowed to prohibit public colleges from considering an applicant’s citizenship and criminal history during the admission process. Further, you’ve promised to dismantle the destructive school-to-prison pipeline, to support implicit bias training to help reduce suspensions and expulsions and to boost federal support of local integration efforts. This kind of thinking is going to make a big difference.
All together, that seems like a lot. And for any other candidate it might be. But only a few of your proposals are accompanied by an actionable plan. And when I dig a little deeper into your history, Senator Warren, I find a much more complex story that muddies the waters around your education agenda.
This Work Isn’t Easy
Look, Senator—I get it. Like you, I’ve been on both sides of the veil. I know there’s really no political home for someone who truly cares about kids and families no matter which type of school they attend.
That’s why you’ve been on every side of this. At one point, you proposed (along with your daughter) a radical, fully-funded public school voucher program that would help struggling families by enabling children to attend any public school (BTW—nice touch to literally propose this program as a family). But then a couple of years ago you went to the polar opposite position when you stood against expanding one of the highest-quality public charter options for families in your home state of Massachusetts.
In my own journey from teaching in a traditional public school and leading in my union, to later teaching in a charter school and advocating for the right of all families to access high-quality education, I’ve thought long and hard about what I believe. I’m still navigating some of these difficult, but important questions as I write this.
But I’m not running for president of the United States. Nor do I have a specific and concrete plan for nearly every other public policy challenge. We’re all allowed to evolve on issues, but your silence on K-12 schools, at this point, is deafening.
You Need Teachers Unions, And They Need You, Too
You and I both know that the union vote is no joke! You are smart and pragmatic in positioning yourself as a close ally—you need their support. National teachers unions are well-organized and have a considerable amount of political power. They donate millions and they have tens of thousands of members on the ground to help get out the vote.
I know—I used to be one of them.
I was in the room the day Hillary Clinton was met with a cacophony of hisses and boos when she had the audacity to suggest that traditional public schools and charter schools should share ideas that work. And you would surely provoke the same ire if you stray too far from the union agenda.
Teachers unions do incredibly important work for educators across this nation. The teachers they serve have the weight of extraordinary expectations, coupled with insufficient resources, inadequate salaries and very little respect. They care about their students deeply and in order to serve them well, someone must look out for them, too. That’s the unions’ role—and they do an excellent job of looking out for their members. But here’s the thing—that’s their job. Your job is not only to look out for teachers, but also to look out for the families and the students—especially those who are most marginalized.
And while you appear to be courting the national teachers unions, they seem to have a few reservations about your record—despite the fact that they agree with the lion’s share of your proposed policies. Diane Ravitch has put you on notice—more than once. Eric Blanc considers your progressive credentials weak when it comes to K-12 education. And because they’ve been fooled in the past (Bill Clinton, Barack Obama), unionized teachers are giving you some serious side-eye after discovering your campaign’s curious—and likely irrelevant— connections to Teach For America and other “unacceptable” reform associations. Further, Ravitch’s Network for Public Education assigned you a “D” letter grade for your pivot on the value of standardized tests as a measure of accountability and your insistence on “stronger accountability measures based on testing” to gain your support for ESSA.
You’re never going to please everyone—no matter what you choose to say or not to say. But know this: They need a progressive firebrand as much as you need them. Isn’t it time to let them—and all teachers—know where you stand?
Will the Real Elizabeth Warren Please Stand Up?
In the end, I’m left with some questions.
- Do you know that the charter schools movement has progressive roots?
- Do you know and understand that “81% of Democratic primary voters support public school choice, including charter schools”?
- You don’t take issue with nonprofit charter schools, but you don’t want to fund them either. When you say public money must stay in public schools, do you acknowledge that charter schools are also public schools?
- Why are you focused on reform and accountability when it comes to college access and affordability—but seemingly unwilling to think the same way about K-12 education?
- Why are you calling for a greater degree of accountability and transparency from the Department of Education and public charter schools, but not for traditional public schools—a number of which are failing to meet the needs of American students?
- You know “race matters.” But do you understand that there is strong public support for public charters among Black and Brown voters? Do you know why?
- Everyone is excited about your plans to make college accessible to all students and to cancel 95% of crippling student debt, but do you realize that neither of these initiatives will do much for our kids if we can’t get them through high school?
So Senator Warren, I need some answers. We all do. To date, your education policy is a cluster of contradictions that voters must assemble in a piecemeal fashion on their own. Meanwhile, your campaign T-shirts literally say, “I have a plan for that!”
I believe in you and I’m rooting for you. If you truly want to “put power back into the hands of the people,” be courageous, be clear about where you stand and why, and give voters the information they need to make an informed decision about your education platform.
When it comes to K-12 education, isn’t it about time you had a plan for that?