“Is that a common view here?”
The Iowans described their work. Starting pay for preschool teachers is $13 an hour. Juli Bretz, the school nurse, barely made minimum wage as a teacher’s associate before quitting, taking out student loans, and going to nursing school. State funding is miserly and bureaucratically tortured into different strands that need to be braided together. Kids attend class in half-day shifts because the money for each time period comes from separate sources. When you think of Des Moines, you don’t think first of poverty, but three-quarters of the city’s public-school students qualify for free or reduced lunch—a higher rate than Denver’s. Half of them don’t attend preschool, and the yearly wait list comes to a hundred children.
Read: Michael Bennet, mad as hell
“If it were up to me, we’d be talking about free pre-K, not free college,” Bennet said. He had just that morning released an education plan calling for, among other things, increased teacher pay and free preschool for every American child through a combination of federal and state money. “My sense traveling around Iowa is that you have the same problems we have in Colorado, which is just a complete underinvestment in our public-education system. We’re not investing the way our parents and grandparents invested in us. It’s not even close.”
They sounded like equals talking about a subject of intense mutual interest: that most basic, perennial, ubiquitous, and all-American subject, our collective failure of poor children. Bennet didn’t ask for votes, or even mention politics. The visit, he said, would be the high point of his week.
“Any other questions, Senator?” Kelling asked.
“I’m just so grateful for the work you do,” Bennet said. “I wish that we were treating it with the dignity it deserves.”
Nothing is nondescript—in some cases, more effort is needed to know a thing well enough to describe it. This is true of Des Moines; it’s also true of Bennet. His qualities are unspectacular, but in politics they’re unusual, even rare. He listens closely, and he talks like a human being who is trying to figure out what he thinks as he speaks. He reads Montesquieu, Douglass, Whitman, Baldwin, and Jill Lepore, and he writes well (in his book, The Land of Flickering Lights, he says of a Ted Cruz filibuster, “His hypocrisy had a papier-mache grandeur to it”). His moderation has nothing to do with political cowardice or softheadedness. He is passionate about education, equality, and self-government, and he’s devoted his political career to turning around the decline of all three. At the same time, he represents a purple state in the almost evenly split upper chamber of a deeply divided republic. “I just believe that we are at our strongest when we have the most—these aren’t political words—but when we have the most fulsome pluralism that we can have, the greatest diversity of opinion, the greatest opportunity for people to weigh in on what we’re doing,” he told me.