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Dems Pledge Money to Schools, Teachers 12/15 09:09

   PITTSBURGH (AP) -- Democratic presidential candidates pledged to boost 
funding for public schools, increase teacher salaries and reduce college debt 
at a Saturday forum that cast a rare spotlight on education, an issue that has 
received only passing attention in recent debates.

   The event was billed as an opportunity to press candidates for more detail 
on their education plans, but it was also a chance for Democrats to vie for 
endorsements from the nation's two major teachers unions, which were among 
several groups organizing the forum.

   Facing an audience of teachers and parents, seven candidates vowed to 
overhaul an education system that they say helps the rich, hurts the poor and 
fails to pay teachers the salaries they deserve.

   They blamed the funding process that underpins the nation's public schools: 
Districts rely heavily on local property taxes, leading to wide education 
imbalances between rich and poor areas. Most of the candidates are promising to 
close the gap through large increases in federal funding for schools that teach 
low-income students.

   "We've got to make sure our children have equal opportunities," said 
Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren. "A child born into privilege has great 
opportunity in this country. I want every child to have great opportunity."

   Warren's plan would add $800 billion in federal funding to the nation's 
public schools through a tax on the wealthy. It promises to quadruple federal 
Title I funding for low-income schools. Others including Vermont Sen. Bernie 
Sanders and South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg promise to triple that 
funding source.

   Candidates were united in calling for greater respect --- and pay --- for 
the nation's teachers. Many propose federal funding increases to bring pay in 
line with that of other professions. Sanders, who supports a starting salary of 
$60,000, said it's "absurd" that there are teachers in some states making 
$28,000 a year.

   "We are going to make sure that every teacher in this country is adequately 
paid," Sanders said. "If you prize education then you've got to respect the 
educators who provide that education. It does say something about our country 
that there are teachers out there working two or three jobs."

   The candidates checked many of the boxes the unions will look for when they 
decide which candidate to support. Many of the candidates took shots at the 
prevalence of high-stakes testing, curriculum requirements and other measures 
that limit teachers' flexibility.

   They also joined against a common foe who has become a regular target on the 
campaign trail: Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.

   Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar said that, if elected, the first thing she 
would do is fire DeVos. Buttigieg said he would appoint a secretary "who 
actually believes in public education." Former Vice President Joe Biden said he 
would reverse DeVos' rules guiding colleges on sexual misconduct.

   Warren drew some of the strongest applause of the day when she vowed to curb 
the expansion of charter schools, which are publicly funded but privately 
operated. Teachers unions have opposed charter schools, saying they unfairly 
draw money away from traditional public schools. Warren suggested she shares 
that criticism.

   "Public school money needs to stay in public schools," Warren said. "It will 
be my responsibility as president of the United States to make certain that 
every public school is an excellent public school."

   There was little further discussion of the topic, even though it loomed over 
the forum in other ways. Even before the event started, charter school 
supporters criticized it as a "public relations stunt" that intentionally 
omitted their voices. Dozens of protesters gathered near the convention center 
in downtown Pittsburgh to show support for charters.

   As the candidates tried to win over the audience, many made efforts to tout 
their education and labor credentials.

   Warren noted that she's a former special education teacher. Colorado Sen. 
Michael Bennet, a former Denver Public Schools superintendent, said he's the 
first former superintendent to run for president. Billionaire Tom Steyer noted 
that he led a 2012 proposition in California that helped rebuild public schools 
"with union labor."

   For candidates, it was one way to stand apart in a crowd of Democrats with 
relatively similar proposals on elementary and secondary education. But their 
proposals on college affordability and student debt cover wider ground.

   In one camp are Warren and Sanders, who have proposed free public college 
for all Americans and the cancellation of all or most of the nation's existing 
student debt. Others have stuck to more moderate proposals for free community 
college or debt-free college.

   The crowd erupted with applause when Sanders said he would cancel all 
existing student debt, and Warren drew applause when she said her plan would 
cancel debt for 43 million Americans.

   But Buttigieg doubled down on his criticism of those plans, saying there 
needs to be more discussion about apprenticeships, internships and other 
options other than a four-year degree. He has supported free college for 
families making under $100,000.

   Biden continued to push for free community college. Bennet, meanwhile, 
focused instead on his proposal for free preschool and played down free 
college. Although he backs a plan that would allow students to graduate from 
college without debt, Bennet said he believes Americans are "a hell of a lot 
more interested in free preschool than free college."


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