Winners & Losers in Pittsburgh

On Saturday seven candidates for the Democratic Presidential nomination came to Pittsburgh to talk about education.  Four candidates emerged as winners, as I saw things.  Three of the names won’t surprise you: Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and Joe Biden.  After all, this all-day event was organized by the two national teacher unions and other progressive groups.

Who’s the fourth–and biggest–winner? You may be thinking it’s the Mayor of South Bend, Pete Buttigeig, but you would be wrong.  To help you along, here’s the full list of the seven hopefuls: Senator Michael Bennet, Biden, Buttigieg,  Senator Amy Klobuchar, Sanders, Tom Steyer, and Warren.  (After initially declining the invitation, Senator Cory Booker changed his mind at the 11th hour but then came down with a bad cold and cancelled.)

(There was a fifth winner, but that’s not revealed until the final paragraph.)

No surprise: Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and Joe Biden were the crowd favorites.

No surprise: All seven candidates favor paying teachers more and want to at least triple federal funding for Title One.  Everyone said that we test students too much.  Just about everyone claimed to have teachers in their family tree.

Slight surprise: Most spoke in favor of apprenticeships and community schools.

Big surprise: the NBC journalists did not push very hard on some questionable assertions or surprising claims, particularly Mayor Pete’s embrace of valued-added research. Neither reporter questioned Biden about supporting Arne Duncan’s much-vilified “Race to the Top,” which dominated education during the eight years of the Obama Administration.

Biggest surprise of all: Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar opened eyes and won hearts with her stirring performance. She was, in my view, easily the biggest winner of the day.

I was privileged to be one of about 1500 in the audience for the event, which was also live-streamed on MSNBC and anchored by two NBC reporters. The day was well-organized and carefully choreographed.  Each candidate got about two minutes on stage alone to make a quick pitch to the audience.  Then the reporters asked the candidate questions for about 15 minutes.  Finally, each candidate responded to three questions from the audience.  Even that part was pre-arranged; someone in charge selected the questioners, who had written out their queries.  (I know because I tried to get in line at a microphone and was told not to bother.)

If you are curious, here are my (edited) notes about the seven candidates, in the order they appeared.  My own thoughts and reactions stand out in this fashion.

MICHAEL BENNET, the United States Senator from Colorado, received polite applause.  Said has a plan to end poverty in one year. but no explanation.  Said he’s the first school superintendent to run for President and recognizes the limitations of the federal government re education.  His Secretary of Education would help spread the word about innovation, not be ‘national school superintendent.’ 

“Need to massively increase teacher salaries.  (applause) Pay teachers like lawyers and doctors! Living wage, not minimum wage.  … I won’t make empty promises.  Feds cannot pay teachers more, because it provides only 9% of $$. ….  States and school districts must  act.” 

Democrats are sending a bad message because “Parents care more about free pre-school than about free college, yet Democratic Party’s image is ‘free college’”

I heard three proposals: 1) link MS, HS, and community college.

2) More apprenticeships in HS, as in Denver.  3 days a week of school, 2 days of apprenticeship.

3) Need MORE school, not less.  Not 180 days but more! 6 days of school a week, not 4! (I couldn’t tell if he was kidding!)

He defended what he did in Denver:  Merit pay, which eventually led to a strike, and his embrace of charter schools, not popular with this audience: “Denver charter schools are authorized by the school board and held to same standards as regular public schools.  “Charters are not be all and end all but have been useful element in Denver, only because of accountability standards.

MAYOR PETE BUTTIGIEG:  His reception was not enthusiastic, which surprised me.

He cited the data about the increase in lifetime earnings ($300,000) of having a great Kindergarten teacher. Says that researcher, Raj Chetty, is on his policy advice team.  “Value added” is what he is endorsing. 

(But the implication of what Mayor Pete is saying seems clear to me: “if only we had better teachers…..”   Frankly, this is scary stuff because most policy folks don’t accept this finding. Is Pete a Republican in disguise, or GOP-lite?  Although the audience around me did not react, in later conversations I learned that lots of people were upset.)

He uses all the right words and phrases about poverty, SEL, wrap around services, community schools.  Roll back Trump tax cuts.  Need more conversation about apprenticeships, CTE, etc.   Right now there’s too much focus on college. Proposes tax credits for employers who provide apprenticeships.  

Pete in PittsburghHe is eloquent, well-spoken, and soothing.  “Crisis of belonging” afflicts us.  “We are in desperate need of things that are shared.”  Eg, military service. But Public School, especially Community Schools can also be that shared experience. 

A seemingly thoughtful suggestion: A national teaching certificate, with training paid for if you teach in a high-poverty school for 7 years.  Certificate would be portable all across the US.”  However, The US already has something akin to that, Board Certification through the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards.  To date, more than 122,000 teachers have earned Board certification. Does he not know this?

ELIZABETH WARREN, the United States Senator from Massachusetts, was greeted by a standing ovation from many in the audience.  Easily the most enthusiastic response so far…

Began with familiar story: “From 2nd grade I knew what I wanted to be: a teacher.  Lived my dream because I became a special ed teacher.”

Ed is most important issue.  “I have a plan” (that got a laugh, of course).  Wealth tax. Invest in education. $800 Billion. $1 M to every school.  25,000 community schools. We build a great country when we invest in all of our children.

Q from audience:  What can president do for special needs kids?  More $$ from feds. $50B for HBCUs.   Quadruple funding for Title One and fully fund IDEA.  More $ for preschool…

“Make it easier to be a teacher.  I will cancel student loan debt for 43M Americans, and some of them will then be able to become teachers.

More respect, beginning with more $$

“Free College,” but nothing for for profit colleges.  Just public colleges. But state must also make investments, Supplement, not supplant.  How will this cut college costs? (It won’t, apparently)

She was asked about charter schools (but not about Josh Delaney, a senior advisor on her team who is from Teach For America and connected to charter schools). “Public school $ must stay in public schools.” 

Q: Will she support public charter schools? Her answer was unclear. “My responsibility is to make sure that every public school is excellent.”  Not cutting funding for those currently in charter schools. For-profit charters should be closed. All charter schools must meet the same accountability standards.

She has riffed on her ‘wealth tax’ at least three times, maybe four. 

And she’s doing it again.

Q about grad school and lack of tenure, poor pay.  How would your Higher Ed plan help us? “When workers have a strong union, things get better.  Workers are entitled to bargain collectively: that’s where I start. Fed $ will help a bit. Need to push states to contribute more. Cancel student loan debt will help.  Need to treat grad students as professionals.” 

Q about getting more teachers of color:  Need support for HBCU. Need loan debt forgiveness because debt keeps many from teaching.

As she leaves, she’s getting another standing O from most of the audience…

BERNIE SANDERS, the United States Senator from Vermont, received an enthusiastic standing ovation, outdoing Warren.  He seems to have unlimited energy, easily the most energetic speaker so far.

Instead of sitting down when reporters came on stage, he charted his own path. He remained standing while answering the moderators’ questions, basically taking over and making each Q a mini-campaign speech.  No one else has done that…and eventually the two reporters also stand. 

Bernie in PittsburghAsked about his own public education, he talked about going nearly all white schools in NYC

From here on, it was almost all about money, basically his stump speech.  “Forgive all student debt” (including that of the rich) because he believes in universality.  So all public college will be free. All debt, even that of the rich, will be forgiven.

He opposed NCLB.  The Q implies he wants to get rid of all testing, but he demurs.  He says we spend too much time teaching to the test, but we need to keep track of student progress and help where it’s needed.  There are better ways to keep track than standardized testing.

Q: What about ‘food shaming’?  Free breakfast, lunch, and dinner.  IE, community schools.

“NCAA athletes should be paid.”

Q: “Fact from fiction” question: only 14% of MS students can distinguish between them. “We need to do something big. We need a revolution in education and learning, because learning is inherent in our species.  Have to respect the educators if we value education. Cites case of young man who wanted to be a teacher but got a better paying job in a state liquor store!”

He applauds teachers for leading a ‘revolution,’ in Red states, for better pay and conditions. “I have the longest and best record of supporting unions. Will introduce most sweeping pro-union legislation in history.  50+1 votes to unionize is all that’s needed. Repeal ‘right to work’ laws. All workers have a right to strike.” 

“We jail more than any other country, even China, which has 4 times our population.  Invest in schools, stop building prisons, invest in their education. Also we need common sense gun policy. We will not allow the NRA to dictate.”  

“We have make sure that schools have the resources–teachers and support staff–to help all kids.”

Q: Raise pay of aides and support staff?  Yes, “National minimum wage of $15.”

“We will end the war on drugs and legalize marijuana.”

“We will triple the funding of Title One”

Another enthusiastic standing O on leaving…

TOM STEYER, the billionaire from California, has the tough job of following Senator Sanders.  Barely any reaction from audience.  Introduces self by saying his mother was a teacher in school and detention center and his brother a long-time activist for children.

A laundry list of what he would do, delivered with passion.  “Must start with quality preschool.”

“Teachers need more $$ and more support. More time to plan.  IE, fewer students.  Schools need nurses, food services, mental health services.  Broad measure of student success, not just test scores.”

“My support for HBCU’s dwarfs any other plan.”

Q: Do we want to educate all children?  We spend one-tenth as much on education as on defense.  “The enemies of education are framing the issue as ‘greedy teachers.’  They are lying.   In GA, if you are in the bottom quintile, you have a one-in-twenty chance of moving out and up. That’s a disgrace.  We cannot repair society without ending education injustice. The idea of not starting with teachers is insane.”

“We have to tell a different story. It’s not just money.” 

Q: Should education be a federal right?  “Yes, but we cannot wait for that.  Kids are in school now.. Have to get it right tomorrow! Look at ERA. we still haven’t gotten to 38 states on that.”


Q from reporter about unequal schooling. You are the picture of privilege. How do you get people to believe that you are the one who can and will make change?  “What I have seen. Basically, I am ‘woke.’ This is a fight for our country. It’s about who we are, how we describe ourselves, who we are deep down.”   

“We all succeed when all kids succeed.” 

“Need to create incentives to get more people into the teaching profession.”

Q from a 13-year-old: why doesn’t my school have a librarian etc, even though schools 10 minutes away have them?   “Fundamental injustice, because of how we pay for schools. This has to change. The property tax approach is wrong.  Have to budget differently. More Title One money won’t be enough.”

Q: How do you measure school success? What can you do to help schools succeed? (While this question caused him to stumble, he recovered.)  “Not test scores or teaching to the test. Check to see how disabled kids.  Education must be for every kid, and,, if you are taking care of most disadvantaged, you are probably doing a good job for everyone.”   

He was earnest, but the audience reaction did not suggest much of a future for his campaign. He got a polite sendoff…

AMY KLOBUCHAR, the United States Senator from Minnesota, began by talking about her Mom. A great story of teaching handicapped kids.  Also mentions her dad and his alcohol issues.

“Will double teacher salaries, repeal Janus decision regarding unions and collective bargaining.  Increase minimum wage.  Will put estate tax back to Obama level, which will bring in $100B.”

“Will fire DeVos in first 100 seconds” (big applause)

Mentions Sandy Hook, the first to do so (today is the 7th anniversary).

“Need a president who looks at issues holistically. I have a track record.  100 bills.”

Q about poor student performance on NAEP. What would you do?  “Attack homelessness with major housing policy.”  Knows Section 8, which is impressive.  “More preschool.” She knows legislation, cites Patty Murray’s bill to change preschool funding.  Impressive wonkiness.

Q: You candidates are all saying the same thing. How will YOU get it done?  “I have gotten things done, more than anyone else.  I will build a blue wall around Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Michigan….and make Donald Trump pay for it!!!”  (huge laughter)


Cites her winning record… “I have won every election since 4th grade, where my slogan–now abandoned–was ‘All the way with Amy K.'”  (laughter)

Q about chronic absence of many students:  We need to do more to retain teachers. Important to have teachers of color teaching kids of color. Make school interesting…. My daughter went to public schools, including those with lots of ‘free and reduced…’

“Let’s have someone with an education background as Secretary.”

“We can do this. We won Kentucky, We won Louisiana, We won Virginia.  Bring people together.  Donald Trump is a decency check, a values check, a patriotism check as well.”

Q from union member. Amy says that was her mom’s union. 

She’s doing a wonderful job of connecting with questioners, including a very nervous boy, whom she helped relax. When one girl talked about being loud, Amy told about the teacher who taught her to speak going to the back of the room and saying ‘I cannot hear you.’  She laughed and said that’s why she’s a Senator today.

She got a standing ovation as she left the stage, the third candidate to get one

Former Vice President JOE BIDEN was also greeted with a (partial) standing ovation.

“If Jill and I end up in the White House, you will have the best friend education could ever have. These are not someone else’s kids.  These are our kids.”

“Free community college for all.  $6B a year.  Also need to allow people to go back to college when their jobs disappear.  That’s another reason to make it free. But just tuition-free isn’t enough. Need help with Pell Grants (double them) etc, to help people attend.” 

He did what he did during the national debates, a strange sort of apology:   “If I’m going on too long, stop me.”

He’s got lots of data at his fingertips. Impressive.

Q about remedial education. “If I had only $10 to spend, I’d spend $7 on preschool.” (this turned out to be his most quotable line in news reports.) 

“I will triple Title One. We will get it by taxing income and wealth the same way. Capital gains taxes.   Teacher salaries must be competitive.  $60K minimum. Every 2-, 3- and 4-year old can go to school, for free.  That increases success probability by 50%.  

“But teachers need support–counselors, psychologists, aides.”  He’s citing data again…

“Community schools are have them in Pittsburgh.”

“Kids need to be challenged.  Cannot treat kids as if they are not capable.”

“Here’s the deal” is his favorite expression.  Used it at least four times.  

Q: Should schools be desegregated?  “We have institutional racism. I supported busing because of de jure segregation.  We also have de facto segregation. If all schools are excellent, then the issue will take care of itself.” 

“I make no apologies for my records on race, none…”

Eloquent about violence against women and the law. Says what he learned was that to decrease violence against women, we have to get men involved.  Says colleges dragged their feet. Colleges have not protected women; assault and failure to punish is biggest reasons women drop out of college. Cites Title IX, showing that he knows his stuff….

“No man has a right to touch a woman unless she can say ‘yes.’”  Slams hand in fist. “Those men are cowards.”

He ended with an impassioned pitch about what teachers contribute and a personal story about the teachers who gave him confidence, especially the one who helped him overcome his stutter.  He was really impressive.

The former Vice President received an enthusiastic standing O at the end and then posed for selfies with what seemed like hundreds of teachers. Biden in Pittsburgh

There was a fifth winner that day: Me! It was incredibly energizing to be back in the trenches again, in my fourth year of retirement.  Teachers are great to be with, for sure. No one can match their commitment and enthusiasm, and I had forgotten just how much I missed being with them.

5 thoughts on “Winners & Losers in Pittsburgh

  1. This critique of Pete Buttegeig does not go far enough — he stated (or at least implied, I’d have to rewatch the segment) that students in a classroom with a good kindergarten teacher averaged $300,00 in additional earnings. That’s not what Raj Chetty’s research found — his study concluded that $300,000 was the aggregate lifetime earnings increase for the entire class. (

    So, if there were 25 kids in the kindergarten class, the average student’s earnings increase was $12,000. And, that’s over an entire working lifetime — if, say, a person worked for 40 years, that would make the annual increase more like $300. Not “chopped liver,” but six bucks a week is hardly enough to build public policy — let alone a presidential campaign — upon


  2. […] John Merrow recently attended a debate in Pittsburgh among seven of the candidates for President,  a debate that occurred at a gathering of teachers in that region. At the debate he took notes on each candidate, notes that provided a relatively comprehensive overview of the candidate’s views on education and resulted in a VERY insightful blog post. […]

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Thanks for the detailed report, John. Funny, I don’t think of you as retired, thanks to these thoughtful bulletins that drop into my inbox from time to time. Please continue!


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