Equal Must Be Equal

Michael Bennet's Education Plan

In our education system today, equal is not equal. Not when children born into poor, near poor, and even middle-class families and neighborhoods have a small—and ever diminishing—chance of building better lives than their parents and grandparents did. Not when children of color are marooned in segregated neighborhoods conveniently out of sight of wealthy communities. Not when children are isolated in rural communities, cut off from economic opportunity. Not when children are born into families who struggle to provide the tutoring, after-school activities, and college prep resources that the wealthy so readily offer their children. Not when high school graduates are too often shackled to minimum wage rather than living wage jobs.

A half century of increasing inequality, stagnant incomes, and growing wealth disparities have harmed all of these children and families. We must replace the policies that have resulted in this inequality and lack of opportunity, including updating the minimum wage, labor laws, tax code, access to affordable health care, housing policies, antitrust laws, and regulations governing corporations and their managers. We must invest in good jobs and economic development.

As important, we must directly break the cycle in which our children are stuck, where many have little hope or real prospects for a brighter future.

The Bennet Administration will make a commitment that by 2028, every child born in this country, regardless of circumstance, will be at the center of a community that offers them a real chance to flourish personally and prosper financially. Is 2028 ambitious? Yes. Is it doable? Yes. Must we do it? Yes. It is a moral and economic imperative. Equal must really be equal.

As the former Superintendent of the Denver Public Schools—a district with 95,000 students and a billion dollar budget—and in his service in the Senate, Michael Bennet has seen and lived what works in Denver and around the country. He also has seen and lived what does not work.

The goals underpinning the Bennet Administration’s 2028 commitment are achievable, because there are a lot of policies that we know work. Home visiting programs for new parents work. Great teachers and great principals work. Quality preschools work. Engaged parents work. High expectations work. Child nutrition programs work. Longer school days and years work. Well-designed technical training works. High-quality registered apprenticeships work. Targeted support for low- and moderate-income students attending college works. Debt forgiveness tied to public service works.

But while we know these interventions work, as a country we’re not doing nearly enough of them. We have failed to come together as a nation to commit the time, effort, and resources needed to implement these proven approaches across every community.

The Bennet Administration will create 500 Regional Opportunity Compacts, which will connect the dots between what is taught in schools, what skills local employers need, and how we support students so they can enter the workforce prepared and participate in society as informed citizens. These locally-based Compacts will bring communities together around shared goals and a culture of collaboration designed to align resources, priorities, and interventions that have kids and families as a central focus. The Compacts will be rooted in local communities and adapted to their unique needs. The Bennet Administration will provide leadership, technical assistance, and financial support of $10 billion per year over five years to launch these Compacts as an investment in the future of our children, our workers, and our nation.

Regional Opportunity Compacts will be comprehensive community-based partnerships through which community leaders, school districts, non-profits, unions, business leaders, and local government leaders pledge to align themselves and work together to reach the goals underpinning the 2028 commitment. As part of these Compacts, community-based coalitions will agree to use common measures of progress set by the community, share data, and implement programs and policies designed to meet a series of goals that will ensure all kids are on a path toward opportunity. 

The 2028 commitment will focus the nation on ensuring that all students: 

  • Arrive at Kindergarten ready to learn
  • Can read by grade 3
  • Are proficient in math and reading by grade 8
  • Can think critically and solve problems
  • Graduate high school with the ability to earn a living wage, not just the minimum wage
  • Enter post-secondary education—if that’s the path they choose—prepared to learn without remediation and to persist to an on-time graduation
  • Enter adulthood ready to participate in their democracy as informed citizens

Although the particular programs and policies will vary substantially because of the unique circumstances of local communities, all Compacts will include the essential elements detailed below.

Early Childhood and Family-Based Care from Ages Zero to Five

The first five years of children’s lives are critical to cognitive development and success throughout their lifetime. High-quality early interventions for kids are a compounding investment that pays off for generations. We need to dramatically increase our support and investments in children ages zero to five. In order to do that, the Bennet Administration will:

  • Expand Home Visiting: We will expand home visits for expecting and new parents, so that all young families are equipped with the tools they need to get their babies off to a good start.
  • Support Child Nutrition: We will expand support for child nutrition programs, including the Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) program; Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP); and the free- and reduced-price breakfast, lunch, and snack programs to ensure that all kids are ready to learn.
  • Expand Exposure to Vocabulary: We will expand exposure to vocabulary for young children, which is foundational to school-readiness, by supporting programs that equip parents with the tools to begin learning in the home well before a child enters school.
  • Expand the Child Tax Credit with the American Family Act: We will enact the American Family Act, which will provide a Child Tax Credit of up to $300 per month per child to help middle-class families afford to raise their kids and cut child poverty by nearly 40%.
  • Establish Universal, Free Preschool: If we want equal to mean equal in this country, every child in America must have access to high-quality, free preschool. We will create a federal-state partnership with the goal of expanding free preschool nationwide for all four-year-olds by 2024 and for all three-year-olds by 2027, providing every child the foundation they need to succeed in school and in life. On average, the federal government will chip in $1 of funding for every $3 provided by state and local governments to fund preschool, with the level of federal match adjusted based on the fiscal capacity of the states (i.e. states endowed with lower amounts of per-capita total incomes will be required to share less of the funding burden than states with higher per-capita incomes).
  • Increase Family Engagement: We will work to increase support for high-quality family engagement with schools and with their children’s education, such as constructive play and reading, because we know that education does not stop when the school day ends. These efforts—consistent with the work of groups like the Flamboyan Foundation—will help families communicate high expectations, monitor progress, and support their child’s learning at home.

Kindergarten through 12th Grade

Our K-12 school system in America was designed for the 19th century and needs to be updated for the 21st century. To do that, the Bennet Administration will:

  • Pay and Support Educators Like the Professionals They Are: Our teacher compensation system was designed for a labor market that discriminated against women and therefore suppressed the wages of teachers. Today, because of decades of hard-fought progress, women have more professional opportunities, yet we have not updated teacher compensation to attract and retain excellent teachers in a competitive labor market. We need to prepare, support, and pay educators like they are responsible for our future—because they are. This means improving training with residency programs so that future teachers have the skills to prepare our students for the future; dramatically increasing teacher pay so that we can attract and retain great professionals; building a support system throughout teachers’ careers to help them grow and refine their craft; and focusing on principal recruitment, training, and advancement to ensure that every school has a strong academic leader. We will set a goal that every educator in America is compensated with at least the equivalent amount they could earn in the private sector with a comparable level of education.
  • Recruit and Retain a Diverse Corps of Teachers and Administrators: Representation at the front of the classroom matters, and we need to do a much better job as a country of attracting, supporting, and retaining excellent black and Latinx teachers. We will launch a national campaign to recruit more diverse teachers from all backgrounds—working with Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) and Hispanic-Serving Institution (HSIs)—to build a teaching corps that fully reflects the students it serves. We will set a national goal of doubling the share of black and Latinx teachers within a decade and building a teaching corps that closely mirrors the diversity of students within our schools within a generation. 
  • Update Instruction for the 21st Century: We need to update our instructional approaches to fit our 21st century economy. A future-oriented education system will provide a variety of high-quality options for families that are designed to support students where they are and grow them to their full potential, as well as to meet the labor needs of the future. It will support community-led innovation, including partnerships with employers and colleges so that students can take advantage of high-quality apprenticeships, career and technical education, and dual enrollment programs to break down the barriers between high school and college.
  • Support Districts Choosing to Extend the School Day and School Year: To provide better learning opportunities for our students, we need to rethink the traditional 180-day school year and the 7-hour school day. Instead of settling for partial-day Kindergarten and four-day school weeks—as some communities have been forced to do because of deep budget cuts—we should be looking for ways to support school districts that choose to extend the school year to 200 days or more, ensure full-day Kindergarten and preschool, and expand school hours, especially for kids who are facing housing instability, violence in their neighborhoods, or other challenges to their education. This additional time devoted to learning will support high-quality, structured, and diverse programming to provide an array of opportunities for student enrichment and growth.
  • Dismantle the School-to-Prison Pipeline: We need to update how we support and intervene with students who are falling behind or falling away. The vast majority of incarcerated individuals did not complete high school. We have an opportunity to mitigate the mass incarceration crisis by keeping kids in school and providing hope and opportunities for them. We must provide school-based resources to support students who may be struggling, including significantly expanding mental health supports and resources; promoting positive behavioral supports such as restorative practices; and providing innovation grants to allow communities to develop and implement diversion programs to keep kids from incarceration.
  • Address School Funding Disparities: Funding disparities between schools lead to disparities in outcomes for kids. Because schools are heavily reliant on local financing, affluent neighborhoods with higher property values result in higher levels of funding for affluent students. The reverse is true in many rural and urban school districts. We will provide federal funding support to states and localities that make an effort to provide significant financial support to rural, high-poverty, and otherwise underserved schools to close the financing gaps that lead to achievement gaps. This starts with a major expansion of Title I and IDEA funding, which have long helped push back against these disparities. But we must go far beyond the current levels of support for disadvantaged students through these programs to fully overcome the ongoing and large gaps that still exist in financing, including asking more of state and local governments who have underfunded disadvantaged schools and students.

Post-Secondary Education

We need to provide more flexibility and high-quality options for post-secondary training to meet the needs of the 21st century. College costs too much, resulting in student debt that hamstrings future choices. At the same time, we are not meeting the needs of kids who choose not to pursue a four-year degree. Because a K-12 education alone does not prepare our students for the jobs of the future, we have to invest in interventions that broaden their options. To achieve these goals, the Bennet Administration will:

  • Enact Free Community College: We will immediately make community college free for all Americans by providing federal funding alongside state support to offset the cost of tuition, so that students can put Pell grants and other financial aid toward their remaining expenses to complete their two-year associate’s degree or other community college program.
  • Make Four-Year Public Colleges Debt Free: For low- and middle-income families up to 300% of the federal poverty threshold (about $75,000 of income for a family of four), we will immediately increase support through Pell grants and other aid to ensure these students can graduate from a four-year public college debt free. Over time, taking into account families’ potential contribution to the costs of education from both income and wealth, we will work to ensure that every student in America can graduate debt free, including tuition, fees, and reasonable costs for room and board.
  • Work with States to Reduce the Cost of Higher Education: As we move toward debt-free college, federal support for debt-free college will be contingent upon states reinvesting in their public institutions and making them more affordable. We will also work with states to revitalize community colleges—raising the bar on quality and creating opportunities for dual enrollment during high school—as another strategy for reducing the overall cost of higher education.
  • Collect Better Data on Outcomes: We will collect better data and publish comprehensive analyses showing what graduates (and non-graduates) earn over time from four-year and two-year schools and specific degree and non-degree programs, so that students have a sense of how well a school and program are preparing students for success in the workplace.
  • Hold Schools and Programs that Receive Federal Aid Accountable: We will crack down on colleges that are doing a poor job of graduating their students with the skills they need to earn a higher income. Based on student outcomes, such as default rates or debt-to-income ratios that are excessive, a program—and even a school, if the challenges are endemic—may be denied Pell grants, student loans, and other federal support.
  • Invest in Career and Technical Training: For the majority of students who do not complete a traditional four-year college degree, we need to expand access to high-quality, skills-based education that provides the training needed to earn a living wage. These programs must be developed in collaboration with local industries, unions, and businesses to ensure that the skills training matches the employment needs of the area. Dual enrollment opportunities, high-quality apprenticeships like the Registered Apprenticeships used successfully by the building trades, and increased access to Pell grants for lifelong learning will expand the opportunity for relevant technical training. 
  • Empower Workers and Provide Economic Security: We should also take steps to support workers throughout their lifetimes outside of an educational context by investing in subsidized employment, bolstering working families’ income security, cracking down on abuses of workers by large corporations, and preventing and aggressively responding to recessions and regional economic emergencies. Learn more in Michael Bennet’s Plan to Reward Hard Work.
  • Reduce Student Debt Burdens: Americans currently owe $1.6 trillion in student debt, placing huge burdens on many low-income and middle-class families. We cannot just write off student debt for one generation; we must make college more affordable for ALL students while helping families currently dealing with high debt burdens today. We will cap student loan payments at 8% of income, a 20% reduction in income-based student loan payments from current law, and forgive student loans after 20 years for people who have successfully made payments on time. 
  • Expand Debt Forgiveness and Allow for Refinancing of Student Loans: We will forgive $10,000 per year in student loan debt for up to four years for public servants and those who work in high-need professions in underserved communities, such as teachers, OB-GYNs, nurses, or primary care physicians in rural areas or high-poverty urban communities where there are shortages of these professionals. We will also allow all student debt holders to refinance their student loans and forgive student debt in bankruptcy.

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