Does Bernie Sanders Offer Education Advocates Enough?

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Does Bernie Sanders Offer Education Advocates Enough?

If Sanders is going to make a play for teachers, parents, students and education advocates, he still has a chance. But time is running out.

"We’re out there, Bernie," writes Steven Singer. "Just say the word and we’ll come running." (Photo: Disney/ABC/flickr/cc)

You probably didn’t hear about this on the news.

To my knowledge no one covered it on TV, the newspaper or even on the blogosphere.

But Bernie Sanders may have made a reply to his Democratic Primary rival Hillary Clinton’s gaffe about closing public schools.

“I wouldn’t keep any school open that wasn’t doing a better than average job,” Clinton said at a campaign stop in Iowa on Dec. 22.

The media took this to mean Clinton is in favor of closing half the schools in the country. The comment has been much debated with calls for context and explanation by the Clinton campaign.

However, very quietly on Dec. 24, Sanders tweeted, “We should not be firing teachers. We should be hiring teachers. School teachers and educators are real American heroes.”

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The @BernieSanders twitter account has more than 1 million followers, a little less than the @SenSanders account. But it does appear to be affiliated with the Bernie Sanders presidential campaign. If Sanders, himself, posted the tweet is unclear. The candidate used the same account to live tweet the Republican debates so he – at least sometimes – is personally responsible for the material that comes out of there.

Moreover, the comment can be connected directly to something he said on C-SPAN at a campaign stop in Cleveland, OH, on Nov. 16 – before Clinton’s gaffe. In a larger speech that touched on numerous issues he said, “We should not be firing teachers and childcare workers, we should be hiring teachers.” The line about teachers being American heroes is new.

Start the speech 56 minutes in to hear the comment.

So I think it’s fair to say that the sentiment is, in fact, Bernie’s. It’s only the timing that is in question.

Is this tweet an attempt to distinguish himself from Clinton? Is this his way of saying that he’s NOT interested in closing schools and firing teachers – instead he wants to invest in education and hire more educators?

Maybe.

It sure would be nice if he’d come out and tell us. Frankly, I’m getting tired of having to read the tea leaves to get a glimpse of Bernie’s K-12 education policy.

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Don’t get me wrong. I love the guy.

He’s been one of my favorite politicians for years. As a U.S. Senator, he’s consistently worked against economic and social inequality for decades. He’s been a fearless critic of Wall Street and privatization, an advocate for single payer healthcare and fighting global climate change.

He champions historic investments in preschool and college – even vowing to make post secondary tuition free. But somehow when it comes to K-12 schools, he’s got very little to say.

Most notably, he voted against No Child Left Behind (NCLB) – the devastating schools bill passed with bipartisan support during the George W. Bush years. However, he also voted in favor of the Charter School Expansion Act of 1998 which further opened the nation’s piggy bank to for-profit school privatizers. He also opposed a bill in early 2015 that would have prohibited the federal government from imposing the terrible Common Core standards on the nation’s schools.

On the campaign trail, when asked about his stance on K-12 schools, Sanders has boasted he would end NCLB. That was just accomplished by Congress through a reauthorization of the bill now called the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). As a member of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee, Sanders was an active participant in that process.

When this legislation was still in the Senate, he – along with almost all Democrats – voted for a failed amendment that would have continued most of the worst aspects of NCLB. The bill eventually passed the chamber in a potentially more palatable form. Sanders eventually voted for that Senate version but was conspicuously absent from the final vote.

Though keeping a busy campaign schedule, Sanders is known for returning to Washington to vote for important legislation. He does this much more than most of the other sitting Congressional Presidential candidates.

So why was he absent for the final vote on the ESSA? Was that done on purpose, and if so why? Could it be an attempt to distance himself from this legislation? Or is it an attempt at plausible deniability – a way of justifying both his approval and disapproval of the same legislation?

Sanders hasn’t said much.

This puts would-be-supporters in an uncomfortable position. We like what Sanders has to say about the economy and poverty, but we have little to go on when it comes to K-12 education. Certainly if Sanders was elected President and came through with all of his other promises, that would help our public schools tremendously. And since Sanders has been fighting for these things his entire lengthy political career, it’s hard to doubt his sincerity. But why not include education as part of this platform? It seems to fit perfectly with everything else he believes.

On the other hand, there’s Clinton. She is making a real effort to clarify her education positions. In fact, last week’s gaffe was part of a much larger policy speech on K-12 schools. Sander’s reply – though better stated – was a one off. It was a sound-byte. It was an applause line. It didn’t have much substance behind it.

How are we to take it? Would Sanders hire more teachers as part of a nationwide education equity policy? If so, what exactly is that policy? Or is he – like Clinton – in favor of closing some struggling schools?

Certainly Clinton has a credibility problem. One of her first actions on the public scene as the First Lady of Arkansas in 1983 was to fight against the state teachers union to enact accountability-based school reform. Many of the billionaires and shady think tanks that are working so hard to destroy public schools have donated heavily to her campaign. Her endorsement by both major teachers unions – the National Education Association and American Federation of Teachers – were allegedly the result of leadership and not rank and file members.

But unlike Sanders, Clinton actually seems to care about getting the education vote. She is actively fighting for our advocacy. Bernie doesn’t seem to think he needs us.

The Democratic Primaries are about two months away. If Sanders is going to make a play for teachers, parents, students and education advocates, he still has a chance. But time is running out.

Personally I’d rather vote for him, and maybe I will. But if he finally came out swinging, if he actually made me feel like he’d strip away the high stakes testing, unproven or failing policies and put teachers in the drivers seat – he could get so much more.

There are tens of thousands of teachers and advocates standing on the sidelines looking to Bernie. If he gave us a major policy speech, he’d find his campaign offices flooded with new volunteers. Educators would take to the streets and phone banks. We’d lead the charge. We could help turn the tide in a Democratic primary where the margin of victory could well be razor thin.

We’re out there, Bernie. Just say the word and we’ll come running.

We want to Feel the Bern, but you’ve got to turn up the heat!

Steven Singer

Steven Singer is a husband, father, teacher, blogger and education advocate. He often writes at his own blog here.

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