Carol Burris led the delegation from the Network for Public Education at the Public Education Forum in Pittsburgh. Here are her reflections on the candidates;



There were roughly 1000 attendees at yesterday’s Public Education Forum 2020.  The group was diverse in both race and age. Students accompanied by parents sat side by side with senior citizens. It was a captivated audience, the vast majority of whom stayed until the end at around 4:00 pm. 


Outside the forum there was a small protest. When I entered the building in the morning, I counted 35 people. One news report said that the protest grew to 100. Michael Bennet was the only candidate who engaged with the protestors—that encounter can be viewed here.


Support was voiced by the candidates for community schools, increased school funding for Title I schools, increased pay for teachers, support for unions, fully-funded pre-schools, increasing the number of teachers of color, student loan forgiveness, and other equity issues which have commonly appeared in candidates’ platforms. In short, it was a positive agenda that acknowledged that resources do matter and recognized the complex difficulties that our schools and our teachers face.


It is not my intent to influence anyone’s vote with this account. What follows is my review of the candidates’ performance by giving each the award I believe they most deserve based on what I heard during the forum as well as with speaking with others afterwards. 


My award for Best Performance is shared by Elizabeth Warren and Amy Klobuchar. I thought their answers were the sharpest, but I am willing to acknowledge I may see the world through my gender lens. 


Upon entering the stage, Elizabeth Warren received cheers. Many stood and applauded. Warren stood her ground when the interviewer claimed she wanted to defund charter schools (she does not). She logically argued her platform on charter schools and ended by saying, “Public school money needs to stay in public schools,” which earned loud applause. She argued throughout for increased funding for public education, funded by her proposed wealth tax.


Klobuchar won hearts with the story of her mom who taught elementary school until she was 70 years old. Her mom would dress up as a Monarch butterfly every year when teaching a unit on butterflies. Klobuchar recounted how a former student with a disability came to her mother’s funeral due to the kindness mom had extended to him long after he left her class. She was warm and encouraging when a nervous student came to the microphone to ask a question. Many in the audience who were not familiar with the candidate were impressed. 


The You Still Don’t Get it Award goes to Michael Bennet. 


The first audience question came from a New Orleans student, Maria Harmon, who expressed concerns about charter schools, which she said are “targeting black and brown children without delivering on their promise of equity.” Maria referred to the Washington Post’s story on our Network for Public Education report, Still Asleep at the Wheel. Her question on charter school accountability received loud applause. 


Bennet claimed that in Denver only the Denver School Board can authorize a charter school. What he did not mention is that the Denver Board’s decision to not authorize a charter school can be overturned by the state board. From the Colorado State Board of Education website—


“The State Board may also, upon its own motion, decide to review any charter decision of a local board of education. Under the act, the State Board has the authority to direct the local board to grant, deny, or revoke the charter.”

So much for local control. Like other pro-charter Democrats, Bennet tried to create a false distinction between “private” and “public” charter schools, saying there are only public charter schools in Denver. “We don’t have private charters,” he said. Denver’s charters are managed by private boards. In addition, Denver allows charter schools to be managed by for-profit CMOs. For example, Life Skills Denver Charter School, was operated by the notorious for-profit White Hat Management Corporation. It was open throughout Bennet’s term as superintendent and was finally shut down by his successor, Tom Boasberg. I have no idea how Bennet’s defines a “private” charter school.


During the interview he defended his merit pay program, which has been largely abandoned, as well as the evaluation of schools by growth scores. 


Bennet’s suggestion that the school year be longer and that students attend school six days a week was not well received by students and teachers in the audience. 


Bennet told us he was “against privatization” and then left to meet with the charter school parents who were protesting the event. 


The Most Loved Award goes to Bernie Sanders


When Bernie came on the stage, nearly everyone was on their feet applauding. He made a vigorous case against high-stakes testing (it was noted by the moderators that he had voted against NCLB) as well for increased funding for public schools. Bernie was Bernie, and the crowd loved it.  His refusal to sit down resulted in the moderators getting up from their chairs to ask their questions. 


The award for Best DFER in Disguise goes to Pete Buttigieg 


Mayor Pete’s melodious even-toned voice was soothing, but no one I spoke with seemed impressed. He received polite applause. When he told the audience that a guy on his policy team (I assume Raj Chetty with whom he attended college) had done a study that showed the positive impact of “great teachers” on students’ economic futures, eyebrows went up. That study was often used by Arne Duncan to justify the evaluation of teachers by test scores.  His teacher training plan sounded an awful lot like Teach for America to me. Rachel Cohen recently reported that prominent charter schools supporters have been doing fundraisers for Mayor Pete.  With Booker and Bennet tanking, it is likely DFERs are looking to Buttigieg as their candidate. 


The James Joyce Award goes to Joe Biden 


Biden was animated and immersed in his usual stream of consciousness style. Listening to Biden is rather like reading Joyce’s Ulysses. You are just not quite sure where his inner Molly Bloom is going next. 


While he did not distance himself from Race to the Top, which I believe was not mentioned at all throughout the forum, I think he said he was against high-stakes testing (sometimes it is hard to tell with Joe). He got a smile from me with his line, “If I’m president, Betsy DeVos’ whole thing from charter schools to ignoring sexual harassment is done.” He was warmly received and frequently applauded. Afterwards many I spoke with said that although he is not their first choice, they would support him if he were the candidate or seemed to have the best chance of beating Trump. 


The Nice Guys Finish Last Award goes to Tom Steyer


Those I spoke with characterized the billionaire activist as a well-meaning guy whose funds would be better spent supporting a candidate with progressive ideas. My assessment is that he cares and wants to make a difference. He demonstrates none of the know-it-all arrogance of Bill Gates or Michael Bloomberg. I hope he will remain on the side of public schools when the campaign is over. 


All in all, the forum was a day well spent.