The Democrats Aren’t Talking About Education Issues They Can Change

Candidates were given little time at the third presidential debate to discuss their proposals to transform college.

rosarioscalia/ Shutterstock Frederick M. Brown / Stringer / Ethan Miller / Chip Somodevilla / Getty / Arsh Raziuddin / The Atlantic

All of the ingredients seemed right. The Democratic 2020 hopefuls were lined up onstage in the gymnasium at Texas Southern University, a historically black university in Houston, Texas, for the third debate. Several of the candidates had announced plans to pump billions of dollars into HBCUs—institutions founded primarily after the Civil War to educate black people shut out of the rest of higher education. One of the candidates, Senator Kamala Harris, is herself an HBCU alum—of Howard University, one of the country’s most illustrious black colleges. And the debate was being held in Texas, one of six states—along with Oklahoma, Maryland, Ohio, Florida, and Pennsylvania—that still needs to prove to the Department of Education that it has desegregated its higher-education system, due in large part to how it has treated its black colleges.

But the ingredients spoiled on the shelf. During last night’s debate, mention of historically black colleges was little more than a guaranteed applause line. South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg said that HBCUs are still training and educating the next generation. Harris pressed the importance of the colleges in training black teachers. Senator Bernie Sanders said he would make the colleges debt-free. But the candidates—despite having, in some cases, robust plans to boost HBCUs—were given few opportunities to discuss those plans.

HBCUs were not the only education issue that received short shrift during the debate. Generally, substantive conversation about the fundamental reform of education in America took a back seat to health care, foreign policy, and climate. The candidates onstage were given only a brief spell to discuss their plans to revamp the nation’s education system. In the hurried few moments that they did receive, the candidates fell back on their bullet points. The education secretary needs to be an educator, Senator Elizabeth Warren insisted. Teachers need to be paid more, Harris said. We need to invest in colleges, Sanders pressed.

The lack of discussion about education policy—higher-education policy, in particular—was glaringly apparent, given how much attention the candidates have paid to student debt and college affordability during the primary cycle. Since 2007, the Democratic Party has radically shifted on the methods it is willing to propose to tackle the student-debt crisis. Still, there is genuine disagreement among the candidates who took the stage in Houston about what exactly a new administration should do, as opposed to with primary education, where all the candidates seem to agree that increased federal grants for low-income students seem like a good idea. Some hopefuls, such as Sanders and Warren, view debt cancellation or tuition-free college as the answer; others, such as Buttigieg and Senator Amy Klobuchar, have backed a more metered approach.

Instead, the education-heavy section of the debate centered on K–12, and on teacher pay and charter schools in particular. In the shadow of the teacher strikes that have swept across the nation in the past few years, several candidates have proposed raising salaries for teachers. But increasing teacher pay would not radically transform schools in the way that the Green New Deal would combat climate change or free college would revolutionize higher education.

Harris, Sanders, Warren, and other 2020 Democrats have pointed to school funding—and rethinking the link between property taxes and money for schools—as one way to revamp public schools in America. Throughout the three debates so far, however, the subject has received little attention, and details about how exactly candidates would reform that link are scant.

There is, of course, a finite amount of time in each presidential debate—even if that time is three hours—and sandwiching every pet issue into that time is difficult. But the executive branch’s role in education is felt most by the nation’s colleges and universities, while much of K–12 education is handled by state and local governments. That candidates from one of the two major parties were not given time to debate the merits of their plans to oversee higher education is an oversight in itself.