Americans have provided state-supported, free public education to our children since before the signing of the U.S. Constitution. This is one of the fundamental building blocks of our democracy. Our future- as families, communities, and a nation- depends on our continued dedication to this commitment to our children. Our present-day and future successes are diminished when our schools are underfunded and understaffed, or when the educational system perpetuates the existing social, racial, and class hierarchy.
a 21st century educational system
One of the most comprehensive studies of student performance, conducted by Dr. James Ryan of Harvard University, demonstrates that the achievement gap increases between black and white students as they move through the educational system. To close this gap, we must usher in a twenty-first an educational system that prepares all our children for financial and social success.
EXPAND PRE-K PROGRAMS: We need to make the reduction of systematic inequalities a national priority. Too many students arrive at school at a disadvantage that prevents them from catching up to, or even keeping pace, with their classmates. Factors that contribute to this disadvantage include poverty, poor health, and emotional distress. These disadvantaged children have trouble learning the social skills necessary for kindergarten and beyond, such as listening, sharing, problem-solving skills, and following directions. Learning these crucial social skills before the age of five is key for a child’s educational success. When a child is emotionally and socially prepared for an academic environment, the child and classroom thrive. We must expand and fully fund pre-k programs to ensure school readiness for all American children.
When financial barriers prevent access to crucial nutrition or pre-k programs, we institutionalize the systems that set class hierarchies in stone. The educational significance of pre-k is widely accepted, but those programs remain out of reach for many families. Private pre-k in Michigan generally costs between $3,000 and $10,000 for a year of pre-k, an expense well beyond the reach of many families. I will sponsor legislation for publicly-funded pre-k education.
END HUNGER IN SCHOOLS: Almost half a million American students rely on free or reduced lunches every day. There is no way to justify an educational system where children without sufficient food are expected to participate in class and learn alongside those who do not face that challenge. I will fight to defend and expand the National School Lunch Program so that this challenge can be diminished.
The United States of the 21st century requires innovation and flexibility, qualities we must integrate into our public school curriculums. Standardized testing is an effective tool when used in constructive ways, however, I will work to focus our assessment to measure the academic and social improvement of students rather than simplistic measures of standardized achievement. We cannot expect every student in every school to progress at the same rate in all areas.
Our current curriculum emphasizes STEM fields at a level that diminishes other much-needed areas of study. The arts and humanities need to be elevated for their roles in promoting civic engagement, critical thinking skills, and creativity. Even the US Census Bureau has reported that liberal arts majors earn more over the course of their careers than professional and preprofessional majors. Along with the need for increased humanities coursework in our curriculum, we must also return vocational training into the curriculum. The most difficult sector of the economy to staff for several consecutive years has been the skilled trades, and we face a current and rapidly growing shortage of skilled tradespeople in the US, a function, in part, of our removal of vocational training from public schools.
As automation becomes an ever-greater cause of economic dislocation and job loss, these curriculum changes will prove their significance. Jobs based on critical thinking, creativity, and the skilled trades will have the greatest resiliency.
Teachers provide one of the most valuable services to our nation but are rarely given the credit they deserve. I will protect the rights of teachers and all public sector workers to organize, choose their own unions and union representatives, and collectively bargain. Effectiveness in teaching cannot be measured simply by student test scores. We must recognize the breadth of the work educators do and create evaluation rubrics that acknowledge the variability of each student and each school, as well as the wide range of responsibilities teachers face. To see our students succeed, I will work to make sure that every classroom has the technology necessary to teach, and that no teacher is compelled, without compensation, to use personal resources to supply their classroom.
MENTAL AND EMOTIONAL SUPPORT FOR STUDENTS
To improve the effectiveness of the educational system, we need to recognize the stresses students face. More than one out of every twelve teenagers attempts suicide annually, with at least eighty percent of those taking easily detectable action beforehand. We can prevent this epidemic, which stands today as the fourth leading cause of death for Americans between ten and fourteen years old and the third leading cause for those between fifteen and 24 years. To combat this, I will sponsor legislation to create a program to put a licensed social worker within easy access of every student while at school.
The goal of our educational system should be to support the development of all children as skillful and free individuals who are able to manage their own lives to achieve their greatest potential. In that regard, special education has no separate goal. We face a situation today in which school districts, teachers, and administrators are often dramatically under-prepared to meet the unusual needs of special education students. This situation is a failure of our educational system that must be corrected.
To address this, we need to accommodate special education students within the standard classroom as much as possible. When that is not possible, special education classrooms must be devoted to the whole student and be driven by an effort to help the student achieve a meaningful, purposeful, and fulfilling life. The special education program of a school cannot be a distinct and separate program within the school.
National standards for education programs are needed, and they must require the development of the skills necessary for the effective delivery of special education. This additional burden on prospective teachers must be supported. I propose that we re-institute the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program and make every certified teacher eligible for full forgiveness of all student loans after four years of teaching. I will push for a Wagner Act for public sector unions and for federal funding to support the salaries of special education teachers. This is a crucial step if we are to recruit the best teachers to take on one of the most challenging tasks in the profession.
Restorative justice offers a promising tool in the effort to dismantle the school-to-prison pipeline. This method reduces suspensions, expulsions, and diversion to alternative schools, where educational opportunities are limited and a pattern of punishment and segregation is established. We have to be willing to make the necessary commitment if we want restorative justice to work, and I argue that it will. This cannot be another task piled onto the desks of already overworked teachers. This is another area where we will help our students succeed by funding programs that bring licensed social workers into the schools. I will support programs to institutionalize restorative justice and hire the licensed social workers and training programs necessary.
One of my primary goals in Congress will be to champion the resurgence of our public education system. The first step is to oppose the disbursement of federal funds to private schools and by introducing legislation to end all for-profit charter schools. The publicly-elected school board is a crucial institution for local oversight and flexibility, as these local boards assess the performance of their own schools and monitor not just results, but methods- an important power in protecting students and teachers from oppressive and unilateral decisions. Ceding that control to corporate boards is a pernicious attack on our democracy and the health of students and teachers.
Having obtained my k-12 education in a school district that encompasses over 600 square miles and requires its buses to travel 825,000 miles per year, I am keenly aware of the issues our rural schools face. Programs to improve public schools in rural communities will produce a multiplier effect, enhancing cultural and social activity as well as increased participation in the electoral process. Public schools provide the spaces where communities gather in rural America, where communal spaces are often lacking. These school districts are also major employers, providers of health care referrals and education, and the source of breakfast and lunch for students who spend hours every day on buses. Teachers, students, and entire communities suffer when we fail to adequately support our rural schools.
According to the Michigan Education Association, “Nearly nine million students attend rural schools — more than the enrollments of New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago and the nation’s next 75 largest school districts combined.” Students in these rural districts face limited access to advanced coursework and technology training, and often lack effective internet access or even computers in their schools. We cannot tolerate a situation where we are blocking the potential of 9 million students. If we have the political will to address this situation, solutions will exist.
The problems of our rural school districts are too large to be left to the states. Congress must expand the E-Rate program to provide funding for internet connectivity in rural schools, make capital improvement grants available, and provide financial support to recruit and retain faculty and staff. Federal Title 1 funding formulas need to be adjusted to more accurately reflect the needs of rural districts. Under the current formulas, rural schools with small enrollments and some of the highest poverty rates in the nation receive very little funding and are not able to make the improvements and upgrades necessary to help all students.
Teachers in rural districts receive lower wages and benefits, enjoy fewer opportunities for professional development and connection, and are regularly called on to perform multiple roles, often without any training or administrative support. Creating and passing a Wagner Act for public sector unions will be a good step forward in addressing some of these issues. We must also commit to adequate funding for all public schools, including rural districts.
HIGHER EDUCATION AND TUITION
Our educational system needs to mirror the needs of our economy, and we need to provide many paths to success. None of those paths should lead students into bankruptcy or life-long debt. Placing an increasingly insurmountable tuition barrier in the way of students seeking the training and education necessary for gainful employment perpetuates class divides and undermines our economy. I am committed to public education that serves every student, regardless of their origin, their income, or their goals.
I will initiate and employ a comprehensive study to eliminate tuition at every public institution for undergraduate degrees, vocational training, and apprenticeship and worker retraining programs. Once in Congress, I will actively work to guarantee every high school graduate access to apprenticeship and vocational programs or a four-year college degree at a public university tuition-free.
Student Loan Debt
Even decades after we have successfully eliminated the tuition barrier, we will face the effects of the student loan debt crisis. Student loan debt is one of the biggest threats to our economy, surpassing credit card debt. With roughly $1.5 trillion in student loan debt, we are facing an economic crisis that threatens to blow up the global economy even more dramatically than the housing crash of 2008. Students who are trapped in this system of lifelong debt will never be able to devote meaningful time to participate in their communities and will struggle to provide for their families.
The Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program was one of the most promising efforts to address this issue, has proved unable to weather the GOP assault on our social and educational infrastructure. I will work to restore this program, make it available after five years of payments, and expand the number of people eligible to include those providing services to their communities while working in traditionally low-paying occupations, such as agriculture and first responders.
It is unconscionable that lenders set interest rates on student loans at twice the rate they charge other borrowers. This amounts to little other than price gouging and must be stopped. I will work to cap student loan interest rates to ensure they do not exceed the national prime lending rate.
I will champion a comprehensive reform of public education in the US from pre-k through postsecondary education. This is our opportunity to create an educational system that will fuel a 21st-century economy and will help us break down the institutionalized barriers that perpetuate racial, gendered, and class-based divisions.