Education on the campaign trail


Student loans, teacher pay, and school segregation are among the education issues likely to influence the 2020 presidential campaign. 


Summer in Washington used to mean a welcome reprieve from the city’s obsession with politics. But this year, even after the killer heat and humidity arrived, the business of Washington remained a constant. Here inside the Beltway, the next presidential election already looms large, and the candidates are already sharpening their positions and their elbows.   

In June, at their two-day, supersized debate, most (but not all) of the Democratic presidential hopefuls made their case to the American people. The candidates answered questions and traded barbs, but headlines were made when the subject turned to education. Student loan debt, underpaid teachers, and (a topic that nobody saw coming) the history of forced busing as a means of desegregating the schools suddenly made education a hot campaign issue.  

It’s difficult to predict how long, or how intently, the candidates will continue to focus on education. With such a large field of Democrats vying for the ticket, education will likely receive at least some attention throughout the primaries. But once the Democratic challenger to Donald Trump has been chosen and the real campaign begins, the candidates could easily decide to ditch the education talk and focus instead on the economy, defense, immigration, and other issues.  

We’ll have to wait and see — but to the extent that education policy does figure into the 2020 election, here are the topics I expect to be on the table: 

Higher education access and costs 

Postsecondary education was a hot topic in D.C. even before the primary debates, and I’m willing to bet it stays that way. Not only is the Higher Education Act up for reauthorization, but Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos continues her efforts to rescind a host of Obama-era rules having to do with student loans and the regulation of for-profit colleges — a pair of issues that many voters care about deeply.  

According to the U.S. Federal Reserve and the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, more than 44 million Americans owe a combined $1.5 trillion in student debt. Those debt holders vary widely by race, region, income level, and age (including a quickly growing number who are 60 and older), which means that they encompass multiple voting blocks. Cognizant of this, several Democratic candidates have made bold proposals to address the rising costs of college and the burden of student debt.   

With so many voters carrying student loan debt, the Democrats would be crazy not to make this a major campaign issue.  

Both Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders have called for the elimination of all existing student debt as well as free public college for all Americans. To cover the costs of her plan, Warren wants to impose a 2% “Ultra-Millionaire Tax” on families worth $50 million or more. Similarly, Sanders proposes taxing Wall Street transactions to raise the necessary funds. However, South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg has stolen much of the thunder on this topic by talking about the estimated $140,000 he and his husband owe in student loans. As the only presidential candidate carrying student debt, he has made this a personal issue, scoring big points with voters and political scorekeepers. He has pledged to make public college more affordable to all and free for lower-income students and to allocate more money for Pell Grants. He also wants to make it easier for debt holders to refinance their loan payments. 

Since the Trump administration has not offered any real plan for student debt relief, it’s hard to imagine the exchange that might occur between the president and a Democratic challenger on the topic. By eliminating the Obama-era safeguards that helped ensure for-profit colleges and institutions operate fairly, the Trump administration has made it easier for for-profit education companies to run riot over their debt-laden customers. With so many voters carrying student loan debt, the Democrats would be crazy not to make this a major campaign issue.  

Support for public schools and teachers 

The ongoing plight of public school teachers, brought to national attention by a number of recent teachers strikes, could also remain an important issue throughout the campaign. From the outset, almost all of the Democratic candidates promised to raise teacher salaries and provide more support for public schools. Warren vowed that if elected, she would name a teacher to be secretary of education, a not-so-subtle reference to the current secretary’s lack of experience. Other candidates have recently made similar pledges. Since the nation’s largest teachers unions (the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers) have traditionally played a powerful role during presidential elections, candidates’ proposals and promises about teachers matter.  

Several candidates have identified charter schools as a threat to public education, a position that pleases both teachers unions. Sanders has been an outspoken critic of for-profit charters, and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio wants to end federal funding for all charter schools. But for a candidate like New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, a longtime supporter of public charter schools and school choice, this issue presents a real challenge. He can’t erase his record as the charter-supporting mayor of Newark, New Jersey, but he must deal with the fact that teachers unions and other charter school opponents have made progress in turning the tide against what was once a powerful force in education.  

Charter schools make for an easy target because most Americans still don’t understand how and why they differ from traditional public schools. Although some parents support charter schools and other variations on the school choice spectrum (especially when their traditional public schools are failing), opponents have effectively kept the conversation focused on two key messages: (1) Charter schools siphon precious resources and good students away from traditional schools, and (2) Charter schools are not being held to the same accountability standards as traditional schools. Both points are largely accurate, so it should surprise no one that these messages have stuck and that some candidates are now using them to win over voters concerned about the future of traditional public schools.  

Equity in education  

And finally, we come to the issue of school segregation. During the June primary debates, California Sen. Kamala Harris had a breakout moment when she put former Vice President Joe Biden on the defensive by challenging him on his past opposition to forced busing as a means of desegregating schools. When Harris explained that as a child, she had benefited from busing, Biden tied himself in knots trying to explain his position.  

In Biden’s defense, our country’s locally controlled education system, with its complicated layers of authority and state-specific characteristics, makes it hard for even a skilled political leader to stake out clear ground on this issue. Harris demonstrated her savvy as a prosecutor by seizing the moment to demonstrate her personal connection to the civil rights movement and the ongoing struggle for educational equity. She didn’t attempt to wonk her way through the many arguments about whether busing was a good or bad policy. Instead, she spoke passionately from the heart and made a simple and crystal-clear point: In her view, busing was a very good thing.   

In the days after the debate, several pundits argued that if the candidates try to relitigate decisions made in the 1970s, that will only divert attention from today’s education challenges. But while forced busing may not be an agenda item for 2020, the larger topic of equity in education — including matters related to school segregation, resources, and property tax–based school funding formulas — most likely will remain in the spotlight. 

It’s hard to imagine any of the candidates having another “Kamala Harris moment” while talking about funding formulas, testing, and the rehabilitation of older school buildings. But I expect that educational equity will be a winning issue for any candidate who can at least speak clearly and directly about education issues that matter to voters.     

MARIA FERGUSON ( is executive director of the Center on Education Policy at George Washington University, Washington, D.C.

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