Elizabeth Warren’s Public Education Problem

When it comes to K-12 public education, Elizabeth Warren’s progressive credentials are weak. Educators and students deserve better.

U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren speaking with supporters at a town hall at Bonanza High School in Las Vegas, Nevada. Gage Skidmore / Flickr

Elizabeth Warren has a commendably progressive platform on most issues. But her past approach to public education has been closer to that of free-market reformers than most people realize.

The Massachusetts senator’s track record on education has received little scrutiny. Not only was Warren until recently a proponent of market-driven education reform and so-called teacher accountability, but her current platform silences, staff appointments, and political equivocations raise questions about her commitment to reversing the billionaire-funded onslaught against public schools.

To her credit, Warren’s talking points this campaign season have been good so far. She has spoken about the need to raise teacher salaries, reinvest in early and K-12 childhood education, and cut student debt. And in the last national debate, Warren highlighted her one-year stint as a teacher, vowed to appoint a public school educator to the position of secretary of education, and declared that “money for public schools should stay in public schools, not go anywhere else.”

It’s great that Warren, like virtually all other Democratic Party contenders, is currently defending these planks. But we should be skeptical of campaign promises, since Democrats have a long history of breaking these once elected to office. As one charter school advocate noted last week, Democratic Party leaders “love school choice, except when they’re running for president.” This is particularly true in our current moment: even privatizer-in-chief Cory Booker has changed his tune in the wake of the teacher strike wave, which has dramatically transformed the national narrative around education.

There are good reasons to doubt that a Warren presidency would reverse the policies of privatization and education reform that have decimated American’s school system since the 1990s. For someone whose campaign motto is “Warren has a plan for that,” it’s noteworthy that she has not yet issued any plan for K-12 schools — in contrast with Bernie Sanders’ ambitious Thurgood Marshall Plan for Public Education.

Much of what we do know about Warren’s past and present education proposals, as well as the composition of her staff, should be a cause for concern for teachers, students, and parents. A recent report card from Diane Ravitch’s non-partisan Network for Public Education gave Warren remarkably low grades: a “D” on testing, a “C” on charter schools, a “D” on institutional affiliations.

It’s no secret that Warren was “a diehard conservative” until she registered as a Democrat in 1996 at the age of forty-seven. Yet fewer people know that her questionable stances on education lasted well after this partisan switch. In her 2003 book, The Two Income Trap, for example, she rejects a “quasi-socialist safety net to rival the European model” and proposes a market-driven approach to education in which public schools would compete for state funding through an “all-voucher system.” To quote Warren: “Parents’ competitive energies could be channeled toward signing up early or improving their children’s qualifications for a certain school.”

Schools that failed to attract sufficient market demand from parents would presumably be forced to close — a system resembling the billionaire-backed “portfolio model” opposed by the United Teachers Los Angeles in its recent strike efforts. Unsurprisingly, Michelle Rhee’s pro-privatization organization Students First praised Warren’s proposal in 2014 as evidence that she — like Jeb Bush, Barack Obama, and Cory Booker — was an “outspoken education reformer.”

In her book, Warren concluded that such a drastic overhaul would “be a shock to the educational system. But the shakeout might be just what the system needs.” Astoundingly, her current campaign website continues to openly defend this proposal, noting only that Warren advocates vouchers for public, not private, schools.

Warren’s choice to tap Joshua Delaney as her education advisor is another red flag. After a year of working as a ninth grade educator through Teach for America (TFA) — a program spearheading the “pro-corporate, union-busting agenda” — Delaney founded a board to make programming for TFA “corps members with an interest in education policy and advocacy.” He then landed an internship at the Alliance for Excellent Education, an education reform institution funded by the Gates foundation and large corporations including AT&T, State Farm, and General Electric.

Why would Warren choose as her education advisor someone who, though progressive on issues such as immigration, is associated with corporate-financed institutions responsible for helping dismantle public schools and teacher unions? “I was surprised and disappointed … to learn that her senior education advisor is TFA,” writes Diane Ravitch. “TFA is a favorite of the Waltons, Eli Broad, and other billionaires who support privatization of public education.”

It’s also noteworthy that Anne Reid, Warren’s current chief of staff, was formerly the chief strategy officer at Vision to Learn — a philanthropic body headed by billionaire hedge fund manager Austin Beutner before he became the notorious privatizer-pushing superintendent of Los Angeles public schools in 2018.

Though Warren criticized high stakes testing at a July National Education Association conference, she fought inside the Senate for test-based “accountability” mechanisms as recently as 2015. The Massachusetts Teachers Association’s president noted that a legislative amendment co-sponsored by Warren would “essentially continue the most punitive aspects of No Child Left Behind” and criticized Warren for failing to see that the “use of testing for accountability is narrow-minded, undermines meaningful teaching and learning, and shifts the focus from the real issues our students and communities face.”

Warren’s stance on charter schools — publicly-funded, but privately-run institutions — is similarly problematic. Though she opposed a 2016 ballot initiative that would have lifted the cap on charters in Massachusetts, she simultaneously argued that “[m]any charter schools in Massachusetts are producing extraordinary results for our students” and insisted on the need to “spread what’s working to other schools.” Last year, Warren went out of her way in a Senate hearing to praise Boston charter schools, despite the fact that these have systematically siphoned off funds from the rest of the city’s school system.

In response to the January 2019 Los Angeles teachers’ strike, Warren’s spokesperson came out only against “rapid charter school expansion” and hedged on whether charters have had a detrimental impact on LA schools — an evasive approach Warren repeated at a May teachers’ forum in Philadelphia. And in June, Warren’s campaign rally in Oakland was introduced by a former Teacher Policy Fellow and supporter of GO Public Schools, the billionaire-funded astroturf organization driving the privatization of Oakland’s school district.

In contrast with Bernie Sanders’ clear support for the NAACP’s proposed national moratorium on all new charter schools, the most that Warren has promised is that she “will not request additional funding for charter schools.” Education analyst and advocate Carol Burris issued a sharp reply:

What progressives need to hear from Elizabeth Warren is the answer to these two simple questions. 1. Do you support the NAACP’s charter moratorium? 2. Do you support funding the federal Charter Schools Program — which funds the expansion of non-profit charter schools? Sanders has made his position clear.

If there’s sufficient public pressure, it’s possible that Warren could be pushed to take a harder anti-privatization stance and issue a K-12 platform in the coming weeks. That would be a positive step forward, but educators should remain wary.

Though she continues to speak out on many important progressive issues, Warren has deepened her links to the corporate-bought Democratic Party establishment, she has pledged to accept big business funding for the general election, and she is building a traditional political campaign rather than promoting class struggle from below.

That’s why even if Warren were to adopt a great education platform tomorrow, she would still lack the confrontational political will and independent mass movement necessary to push through deep structural change if elected to office. Whether it’s a question of reversing school privatization, winning Medicare for All, stopping climate change, or dismantling the prison-industrial complex, we need a presidential candidate — and a new administration — firmly committed to disruptive collective action against the billionaire class.

On most policy planks, Warren is good, but Bernie is better. When it comes to public education, however, Warren’s approach remains virtually indistinguishable from the Democratic Party establishment. For students, educators, and their unions, the choice in 2020 should be clear.