While U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos wasn’t on stage at the National Education Association conference Friday in Houston, her policies and legacy in shaping public education were key talking points at the national teachers’ union presidential forum.

Ten Democratic presidential candidates appeared on stage individually to answer questions from NEA members and expound on their education priorities. Several candidates took turns making jabs at problems within the public education system and at DeVos, a strong advocate for charter schools.

“Betsy DeVos need not apply,” said Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, referencing her potential picks for Secretary of Education if elected in 2020.

Warren, former Vice President Joe Biden, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, and California Sen. Kamala Harris all pledged Friday that if elected, they would appoint a public school educator as the next Secretary of Education. The crowd of several thousand educators applauded loudly in response.

During the two-hour forum, NEA President Lily Eskelsen García asked candidates about education issues that came up in the Democratic presidential debates on June 26 and 27: early-childhood education, gun violence in schools, and the cost of higher education.

Biden, Warren, de Blasio, and former El Paso Congressman Beto O’Rourke advocated for universal pre-kindergarten programs, a policy priority of former Housing and Urban Development Secretary and San Antonio Mayor Julián Castro, who also appeared at the forum.

“[From the] moment a child is born, all [should] have an equal start,” Biden said. “Let’s start with universal pre-K, but before that – look, what I don’t get is why we are even arguing about this anymore. All the data is in and there is overwhelming evidence that it enhances every single community where we do it.”

Castro has previously advocated for universal, full-day pre-K for 3- and 4-year-olds. While he didn’t touch on that element of his People First education plan Friday, he mentioned other priorities, including bolstering fair housing policies that would allow low-income families to move into school districts that primarily have not served that demographic.

He also said he would support investing in voluntary busing within school districts so students could choose to attend campuses outside of their immediate surroundings.

Castro’s advocacy for wraparound services and a community schooling model was also a point of discussion for several candidates.

“[We should be] investing in the community-based school model that includes wrap-around services so students are able to avail themselves of good resources so they can be healthier,” Castro said. “All of these things go together. We don’t exist, we don’t live, in silos, and neither should our policy in this country.”

Biden, whose time on stage immediately followed Castro’s, echoed the former mayor’s call for wraparound services. U.S. Rep. Tim Ryan of Ohio also called for this kind of support to improve mental health services. Ryan said he also would like to see every school have a mental health counselor and nurse.

In addressing gun violence in schools and elsewhere, Harris called for a significant policy change, saying that if Congress did not take action in her first 100 days in office, she would use executive action to require universal background checks and ban the importation of assault weapons into the United States.

Discussing the cost of higher education and student loan debt, O’Rourke said he would forgive 100 percent of student loan debt if a person dedicated his or her life to public service. Ryan told the crowd that he would create a loan forgiveness program for teachers and offer an expanded tax credit program for teachers who use their own money to supply their classrooms.

Referencing her time as California’s attorney general, Harris said she would go after predatory lenders, adding that she is a proponent of debt-free college and loan forgiveness for middle class and working students. Warren said she would cancel student loan debt for 95 percent of people.

Few candidates mentioned how specifically they would find the funds to pay for their education policies. Warren proposed a wealth tax that would impose a 2 percent tax on the top one-tenth of 1 percent of people with the “great fortunes of this country.” That money, she said, could fund tuition-free technical school, community college, and four-year college; investments in school infrastructure; student loan debt elimination; and universal childcare.

Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar suggested a few ways to fund her plan: changing the estate tax and a new partnership proposal that would encourage states to partner with the federal government to fund education priorities. Washington Gov. Jay Inslee suggested reversing President Donald Trump’s tax cuts to invest more money in public education.

The candidates also discussed charter schools during Friday’s forum. Through what he called a Thurgood Marshall Education Plan, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders said he would end federal funding for for-profit charter schools and put a moratorium on all new charter schools until there is a full understanding of their impact on public education.

O’Rourke, whose wife, Amy, started a charter school, also broached the topic. Saying there was a “place for public nonprofit charter schools,” O’Rourke said under his administration, he would not give any money to private charter schools or voucher programs. De Blasio came out fiercely opposed to funding charter schools, saying he would give no federal money to them.

Former El Paso Congressman Beto O’Rourke Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

The NEA represents 3 million educators and claims to be the largest union in the country. The organization has not endorsed a 2020 presidential candidate, but NEA officials called out to the audience of close to 10,000 members that the group was ready for a new president come the election.

“We appreciate the candidates showing up to answer our questions, ask for our support, and tell us how they will partner with us in our work to make sure all students have the tools, resources and opportunities they need to succeed, no matter their zip code,” García said. “Educators are ready to make their presence felt in this election, and we will play a vital role in choosing who becomes the next president of the United States.”

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Emily Donaldson

Emily Donaldson reports on education for the San Antonio Report.