The school bell chimed and the class shuffled home.
But the students weren’t little children.
They were Democratic Presidential candidates!
And boy-oh-boy did they get sent packing with a ton of homework!
Teachers, students, parents and community members from all over the country sat them down with instructions on how to improve the public education system.
Kudos to the candidates for agreeing to listen.
It was billed as the MSNBC “Public Education Forum 2020: Equity and Justice for All” – and though it’s over now, its effects may be felt for months or years yet to come.
The fact that it happened at all is almost miraculous.
Who would have thought Presidential hopefuls would care enough about public schools to address education issues and answer our questions?
Who would have thought it would be broadcast live on TV and the Internet?
And – come to think of it – who would have EVER thought it would happen in my hometown of Pittsburgh!?
But it did.
I was there – along with about 1,500 other education activists, stakeholders and public school warriors from around the country.
It was an amazing day which I will never forget.
Perhaps the best part was getting to see so many amazing people in one place – and I’m not talking about the candidates.
There were members of the Badass Teachers Association, the Network for Public Education, Journey for Justice, One Pennsylvania, the American Federation of Teachers, the National Education Association, and so many more!
I wish I could bottle up that feeling of commitment to our children and hope in the future.
Perhaps that’s kind of the point behind this article.
So much happened and there is so much worth noting, let me put my impressions down as a series of takeaways or lessons for us to savor between now and the primary election – maybe even until the general.
Here’s my top 10 most important lessons:
1) Charter School Support is Weak
When the forum was announced, Jeanne Allen of the Center for Education Reform wrote a blistering memoabout how the charter school community would not put up with politicians listening to constituents critical of their industry. Allen is a far right Republican with close ties to the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) who even used Donald Trump’s public relations firm to publicize her protest. But when we got to the forum, all it amounted to were a dozen folks with matching yellow signs trudging through the rainwho didn’t even stay for the duration of the forum. YAWN! Silly school privatizers, that’s not how you protest!
2) Michael Bennet Doesn’t Understand Much About Public Education
The Colorado Senator and former school superintendent really doesn’t get a lot of the important issues – even when they intersect his life. As superintendent, he enacted a merit pay initiative for teachers that resulted in a teachers strike. He still doesn’t comprehend why this was a bad idea – that tying teachers salaries to student test scores makes for educators who only teach to the test, that it demands teachers be responsible for things beyond their control, etc. Moreover, he thinks there’s a difference between public and private charter schools – there isn’t. They’re all bankrolled by tax dollars and can be privately operated.
But I suppose that doesn’t matter so much because few people know who Michael Bennet is anyway.
3) Pete Buttigeig is Too Smart Not to Understand Education – Unless He’s Paid Not to Understand
Mayor Pete came off as a very well spoken and intelligent guy. But he also seemed about as credible as wet tissue. He said a bunch of wrongheaded things. For instance, he said that “separate has never, ever been equal,” but he supports charter schools. Separate but equal is their business model.
It’s the kind of misunderstanding that only happens on purpose, and it’s not hard to see why. He’s taken so much money from anti-education billionaires like Netflix Founder Reed Hastings, no one else can trust him. How are we supposed to think he works for us when his salary comes from the super rich? You never recover from ignorance when it’s your job to be ignorant.
4) Gender Neutral Bathrooms Just Make Sense
I used a gender neutral bathroom for the first time at the forum. I figured I just had to pee so it didn’t matter. Inside were nothing but bathroom stalls – no standing urinals. People of all genders were in there using the facilities and it didn’t matter at all. In fact, it just made sense. It only seems strange because of what we’ve grown to expect. Gender neutral is just logical – no one uses the bathroom for anything but… using the bathroom. Try it and you’ll see – it’s the most logical and natural thing in the world.
5) Elizabeth Warren is a Star!
Warren simply electrified the room as soon as she entered it. She was at least as smart and well-spoken as Mayor Pete, but she was credible, too. She said all charter schools should have to meet the same requirements as authentic public schools. She said public school money should stay in public schools. She had detailed plans for how to fix what ails or school systemincluding a two cent wealth tax (three cents if you’re a billionaire) to pay for universal child care, universal pre-kindergarten, better pay for childcare workers, broader pell grants, and SO much more.
I was even more impressed with her in person and she got a standing ovation from the crowd. She would make a great President.
6) Bernie Sanders is a Superstar!
If Warren electrified the audience, Bernie was like a nuclear explosion. I don’t think anyone stayed in their seat when he entered. Fists pumping in the air, applause, chants of “Bernie! Bernie!” It was clear who the audience appreciated most.
And he was amazing. He said we need to break our dependence on property taxes to fund our schools. He said the problem with testing is we spend too much time teaching to the test. There are better ways to assess learning. He said we need a revolution in how we feel about education and learning. We’ve got to respect the educators who provide that education. He talked about criminal justice and unions and a broader range of issues and in more depth than any other candidate.
But my favorite moment was this.
Question: Should the federal government subsidize student lunch?
Bernie: “And breakfast and dinner as well.”
I think he solidified for most of us that he’s our number one candidate in this election. He would be a once in a lifetime President!
7) MSNBC Anchor Rehema Ellis Does Not Understand Standardized Testing
Throughout the forum, Ellis kept asking the same question over-and-over. She kept asking about America’s dismal standardized test scores compared to other countries. But we weren’t ignorant rubes. She was talking before an audience of teachers. It became clear she didn’t understand what these international test scores mean. First of all, she kept talking about US kids being behind grade level. Proficiency on tests like the NAEP isn’t the same as grade level proficiency. Moreover, comparing the US – which educates everyone – and other countries that do not is like comparing apples to oranges. But Ellis was part of NBC’s Education Nation initiative and has been spreading falsehoods and half-truths about testing for a decade. Maybe after educating the politicians we need to send the media back to school, too.
8) This is Not the Moment for Tom Steyer
Steyer is a billionaire self-funding his campaign in a time when voters are sick to death of the rich controlling our politics. He’s like a fox warning us all about foxes. It doesn’t make me want to vote for him. It makes me wonder if he thinks I’m lunch.
9) Amy Klobuchar is a Better Candidate Than I Expected
And the winner of most improved image is Klobuchar – by a mile. She came off so authentic and honest. She started with an emotional story about her mother – a teacher – which naturally lead into some really smart policy suggestions. And saying that she’d fire Betsy DeVos in seconds after becoming President and replace her with an educator was nice, too. I’m not saying I think she can or should win the nomination, but I’m glad she’s in the race and I hope we see more of her.
10) Joe Biden is Not Going to Beat Donald Trump
Biden came tottering onto the stage late like a friendly but lost old man. He flashed the charm and told us what his policies were but he couldn’t explain why he supported a single one of them.
He was the worst public speaker all day. His words rambled this way and that. At one point he told the audience to stop clapping so he could explain why he wanted to fully fund special education, but then he went off on a digression and got lost. At one point he rhapsodized about all the terrible teachers out there and said teachers touch students’ lives – “metaphorically speaking.”
Dr. Denisha Jones – an amazing activist and friend – asked him a pointed question about standardized testing and whether he was against it? He told her she was “preaching to the choir” but then rambled on for moments more about … something. I don’t know what.
Biden seems more like someone with Alzheimer’s Disease than aspirations to the chief executive. If he won, his wife or someone else would really be making the decisions. He isn’t well. And all you have to do is hear him speak for a few minutes to see it.
Bottom line: I don’t think he could beat Trump.
As terrible as Trump is, he can speak more coherently than Biden. That’s a horrible thing to admit, but it’s true.
So there you have it – my top 10 takeaways from the education forum.
It was a great way to spend a Saturday.
The candidates left knowing exactly where the education community stands. They know what they need to do to get our votes – and many of them are actively trying to do that.
We have several candidates that would make good Presidents – and several who stand a good chance against Trump.
Here’s hoping that we all learn our lessons and use them to win back our government in 2020.
If you missed the event, you can still watch it here:
Like this post? I’ve written a book, “Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform,” now available from Garn Press. Ten percent of the proceeds go to the Badass Teachers Association. Check it out!