by Valerie Strauss
Democratic presidential hopeful Sen. Elizabeth Warren (Mass.) unveiled a broad plan Monday that calls for spending hundreds of billions of dollars to improve public schools from prekindergarten through 12th grade. She wants America’s wealthiest people to pay for it.
Her plan also would eliminate use of test scores for high-stakes decisions and end federal funding for new charter schools.
Warren, who in some recent polls has topped the other 18 candidates running for the Democratic nomination, would steer U.S. education policy away from that of President Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, who have said their priority is expanding alternatives to traditional public schools.
“To keep our traditional public school systems strong, we must resist efforts to divert public funds out of traditional public schools,” Warren said in the plan. She pointed to charter schools, which are publicly funded but privately operated (and which Warren once supported), and to DeVos-backed voucher and tuition tax-credit programs that use public money for private and religious school education.
“We should fight back against the privatization, corporatization, and profiteering in our nation’s schools,” she said in her plan, which was applauded by the leaders of the two major teachers unions.
Warren, who has touted dozens of plans for the country, said she would pay for her education vision with a proposed “wealth tax.” It would levy a 2 percent tax on wealth above $50 million and a 3 percent tax on wealth above $1 billion. Some economists and other Democratic candidates have said the tax would not raise as much as Warren said it would and could not pay for everything she plans.
A representative of the Warren campaign said Sunday that Warren would use the wealth tax to pay for the new education plan as well as for previously announced initiatives to provide universal child care and early learning opportunities, cancel most student college debt and offer free tuition at public colleges.
And now, the representative said, other plans Warren had intended to use the wealth tax to cover — to end the opioid crisis, to create a small-business equity fund, and to invest in election security and administration — will be funded by closing the “stepped-up basis” loophole on the tax on inherited assets. Warren says that move will raise more than $100 billion over 10 years.
It is unclear whether her funding proposals will cover the more than $1 trillion in initiatives that Warren has advanced for pre-K through college. But Warren has staked out a vision for pre-K through 12th grade that is at least as expansive as any other candidate’s in the Democratic race.
Warren’s plan most resembles that of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who has offered what he calls a Thurgood Marshall Plan for Public Education. It includes rethinking the way public schools are funded, giving a major boost in funding to schools in high-poverty areas and freezing all federal money for new charter schools. Former vice president Joe Biden’s education plan is less detailed but includes more spending for schools in high-poverty districts.
America’s public schools are funded heavily, though not exclusively, through property taxes, with the result being that poorer neighborhoods have less to spend on their schools. Federal money intended to help those school systems doesn’t come close to closing the gap. Warren said she wants to change that formula and work toward an equitable funding system as she pours more money into schools in high-poverty neighborhoods.
Warren’s plan takes aim at some of the most systemic problems in education, including segregated classrooms and neighborhoods and low teacher pay. It recognizes that student achievement is affected by factors outside the classroom and calls for changing policies on housing, energy and broadband availability that Warren said affect the ability of students to get a quality education.
- Quadruple federal Title I funding for schools in high-poverty neighborhoods, which would add $450 billion over the next 10 years — and change the way that funding is implemented so that the neediest students benefit.
- Fund the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act at the level the federal government originally promised — 40 percent of the total cost of educating students with disabilities — which would add $20 billion a year in new federal grants and expand IDEA funding to young children.
- End federal investment in charter school expansion, ban for-profit charter schools and ensure existing charter schools are subject to the same transparency and accountability requirements as traditional public school districts. Warren also supports making school districts the only authorizers of charter schools and promises to “crack down on union-busting and discriminatory enrollment, suspension, and expulsion practices in charter schools.”
- Reinstate Obama-era protections for transgender students under federal law that were revoked by Trump and take other steps to protect LGBTQ students and faculty.
- Invest federal dollars to raise teacher pay and strengthen the bargaining power of teacher unions.
- Eliminate use of standardized test scores for high-stakes decisions. The plan says, “As president, I’ll push to prohibit the use of standardized testing as a primary or significant factor in closing a school, firing a teacher, or making any other high-stakes decisions, and encourage schools to use authentic assessments that allow students to demonstrate learning in multiple ways.”
- Cancel student breakfast and lunch debt and provide free and nutritious school meals.
- Ban the storing and selling of student data.
- Expand social-emotional learning.
- Offer $100 billion in grants to transform 25,000 public schools into community schools, which provide family support and health and social services to students.
The plan won applause from the presidents of the two major teachers unions — Lily Eskelsen García of the National Education Association and Randi Weingarten of the American Federation of Teachers — but neither has endorsed a Democratic candidate.
Kevin Welner, director of the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado at Boulder and a professor specializing in educational policy and law, said Warren’s plan is “designed to move away from the baseless schemes grounded in test-based accountability and school choice, shifting to long-term, sustainable investment that would genuinely increase kids’ learning opportunities.”
But supporters of charter schools said Monday they were disappointed with Warren’s proposal.
“Elizabeth Warren’s unfortunate rejection of the Obama legacy on public charter schools is fundamentally at odds with her party,” Amy Wilkins, senior vice president of advocacy at the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, said in a statement. “President Obama increased funding for the federal Charter Schools Program more than any other president, and the majority of rank-and-file Democrats understand this funding is critical to support the education of underserved students.”
The Obama administration was a big supporter of charters as were many in the Democratic Party. But there has been a backlash in recent years amid scandals in the charter sector and Trump’s appointment of DeVos, who once called traditional public schools “a dead end.” Polls show varying levels of support for charters, depending on how the question is asked, and some key Democratic groups began to call for moratoriums on charter expansion as reports increased about how some traditional school districts were losing important funding to them.
Biden, who was vice president during the Obama administration’s embrace of charters, said recently at a union forum: ““The bottom line is it siphons off money for our public schools, which are already in enough trouble.”
Over the years, Warren has changed positions on some education issues. She once supported charter schools but in 2016 opposed an initiative in Massachusetts — funded mostly by Republicans — to lift a cap on the number of charters.
In 2015, she co-sponsored an amendment to the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), the successor to the No Child Left Behind law, that explicitly called for the use of standardized test scores to hold schools “accountable.” Now, she doesn’t want test scores to be used to decide on whether a school should close.
In a 2003 book, she advocated for a fully funded voucher program that would enable children to attend any public school of their choosing (although not private or religious schools). But her new plan says nothing about it.
Valerie Strauss is an education writer for the Washing Post who authors The Answer Sheet blog.