Building a Stronger Education System
Education is one of the most important investments we make in our children and our nation. At best, it is a social equalizer and ticket to economic success, regardless of a student’s race, gender, or zip code. But decades of underinvestment in our public schools have made this goal more aspiration than reality. And COVID-19 has thrown the consequences of this systemic inequality, deprioritization, and neglect into stark relief, with an entire generation of learners at risk of falling far behind due to the pandemic. The education system today is one where educators are working longer hours for low pay, school infrastructure is crumbling — especially in rural and low-income areas — and students are being deprived of the resources they need to learn and grow. All the while, our nation’s shameful history of segregation is on full display, with children of color being disproportionately relegated to the underfunded and underperforming schools that have the fewest resources with which to navigate the pandemic.
Betsy DeVos and the Trump administration — supported by Senator Cory Gardner — have made the situation worse. They have proposed funding cuts to public education systems in favor of unprecedented support to private schools that cater to the wealthy. They have actively undermined the civil rights of LGBTQ students and students with disabilities. They worked to erode Title IX protections against sexual harassment on campus. And they have made it harder for individuals defrauded by predatory institutions to have their student loans forgiven—while doing nothing about the student debt crisis plaguing our nation.
Now COVID-19 is straining the system to its breaking point. By shuttering schools, the coronavirus has highlighted just how essential they are. In addition to learning and socialization, schools offer a safe place for kids while parents are at work, regular meals for students who otherwise might not get them, and support for the mental and physical health of Colorado’s young people. The pandemic has forced administrators to weigh the pitfalls of in-person instruction against remote models; parents to juggle work obligations with the learning needs of their children; educators and families to grapple with the broadband and technology requirements of an overnight transition to online education; and students to make sense of their new, socially-distant reality, with the most vulnerable becoming even more at-risk. While it is a difficult time for all Americans, the years of underinvestment in our education system have made the challenge of reopening our schools during COVID-19 especially acute.
There is another way. If Congress makes education a priority, we would be able to recover in the short-term and rebuild a more resilient system in the long-term. As your senator, I commit to doing both. We must do what I did as mayor and work toward universal preschool, giving students across the country the benefit of what Denver now enjoys. We must invest in every aspect of our public schools, from educators to electives, with a focus on meeting the needs of historically underserved students and ensuring that a quality education is available to all. And we must make higher education more attainable, by increasing college affordability and expanding pathways to apprenticeships and skills training. I believe that a stronger, more inclusive education system is possible and look forward to getting it done in the U.S. Senate.
INVEST IN EARLY CHILDHOOD LEARNING
Ensure Universal Access to Early Childhood Education and Preschool: As a parent, I know that learning starts at birth. Early childhood education is one of the best investments we can make as a nation to help ensure that every child is prepared for kindergarten and beyond. In addition, we know that parents cannot work without access to high-quality, affordable child care. That is why, as mayor of Denver, I helped create the Denver Preschool Program, which established free, high-quality early childhood education for more than 55,000 Denver students. As senator, I would support Senator Patty Murray’s Child Care for Working Families Act, which would provide universal access to preschool for 3- and 4-year olds and help ensure that child care is affordable for all Colorado families.
STRENGTHEN OUR K-12 SYSTEM
Give Schools the Resources They Need to Reopen Safely: Our federal government has failed by nearly every metric in giving educators and parents the confidence that it is safe to reopen schools across the country. Instead, states and districts have been forced to fend for themselves. Schools desperately need funding to develop remote and hybrid learning plans, guide educators through this transition, equip students with laptops and hotspots to make remote instruction possible, ensure that students with disabilities and English language learners have tailored support, and meet families’ wraparound needs that are likely to grow during periods of high unemployment. These funds will also help schools without health centers or nurses — especially in rural neighborhoods and opportunity zones — to implement systems that keep students and educators safe and ensure proper health protocols are being followed. Finally, they will enable schools to provide the mental health support for staff and students that will be so essential to getting through this isolating and difficult time. It is clear that inequalities across districts that were present before COVID-19 are being exacerbated by the pandemic. The federal government has a role to play in filling those gaps, so that all schools, regardless of zip code, can facilitate a safe return to in-person instruction.
The House passed the HEROES Act in May, which included essential funding for K-12 schools. In contrast, the Trump administration has threatened to blackmail schools into reopening, whether or not it makes sense to do so, and Senator Gardner has done nothing to stop that effort. This is unacceptable. Science must guide the decision to reopen, not political expediency, and Congress should provide states with the resources and guidance they need to make those decisions safely.
Invest in Public Schools: As a public school parent, I am keenly aware of the particular power that public schools have to equalize opportunities for all students. Yet when public school funding is still far below what it was before the 2008 recession, we know we don’t have our priorities in order. Colorado took enormous strides by providing free, full day kindergarten in 2019, but our school systems will need additional support to make this type of progress nationwide. In the Senate, I will fight to ensure we are investing in our children’s education, particularly through Title I. Those much-needed dollars can help reduce class sizes, increase enrichment opportunities such as after-school and summer literacy programs, and expand free and reduced lunch programs and Breakfast After the Bell. In doing so, we will work to ensure that every child in America is receiving a world-class education, which prepares them to compete in an increasingly global and competitive market.
In addition, I am committed to addressing funding disparities for schools serving students of color, low-income students, English learners, and students with disabilities. Investments in high-needs populations can help to prevent and address persistent achievement gaps between these groups and ensure that every child, no matter who they are or where they live, has access to the resources they need to succeed in school and in life. This funding was important before COVID-19 and is now essential if we are going to safely meet student and educator needs during the pandemic.
Finally, we need a Secretary of Education who actually believes in public education. Senator Gardner voted to confirm Betsy DeVos, who sees public schools as a “dead end” and has done everything in her power to funnel resources to private schools instead. A strong advocate for public schools should be running the Department of Education to undo this administration’s damage.
Invest in Teachers and Educators: The quality of a child’s teacher is the most significant school-level factor in determining student achievement. But in Colorado, our educators have some of the lowest salaries in the country and the lowest earning power. As senator, I would prioritize investments in educator salaries, training, and support to ensure that Colorado’s children have access to quality, well-paid teachers. Evidence shows that teachers of color improve outcomes for students of color, so Congress should facilitate the collection of data on the racial diversity of teacher training programs to determine how to better recruit, support, and retain underrepresented educators. The Senate can make these programs more accessible by offering loan forgiveness to educators in high-need areas. Finally, Congress should pass the Public Service Freedom to Negotiate Act, to protect the right of public school staff to organize for union representation.
Support Community Schools: In community schools, a holistic approach to learning acknowledges how much of education happens outside the classroom. Schools offer wraparound services to ensure the mental and physical wellbeing of every student. Parents engage as partners in their child’s academic achievement. Discipline becomes an opportunity to reinforce a positive school environment—not to mimic the criminalization of the justice system. And school leadership teams are diverse and inclusive. I support building on the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) to increase opportunities for public schools to take a community school approach.
PROMOTE EQUITY IN EDUCATION
End the School-to-Prison Pipeline: Students of color are disproportionately impacted by the “school-to-prison pipeline,” a practice in which students — sometimes as young as three — are disciplined under “zero-tolerance policies” and suspended or expelled. Studies show that this early criminalization can lead to adverse academic outcomes for students and increase the likelihood that students drop out of school and interact with the juvenile justice system. These harsh disciplinary policies are linked to limited resources in school systems, highlighting the importance of adequate funding to relieve the burden from educators who are stretched thin. In addition, Congress can help shift the focus from police to counselors in schools and incentivize restorative justice programs. When I was mayor, Denver Public Schools adopted a restorative justice program, which reduced suspensions by 50 percent and boosted graduation rates. It is work I look to build on in the U.S. Senate.
Strengthen Supports for English Learners: In Colorado, English learners make up a high percentage of students in our K-12 public schools. Students learning English need targeted supports to help them excel in the classroom. However, federal resources have not kept pace with the increased percentage of English learners in our country. Congress should prioritize investments in Title III of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act to provide resources to school districts and schools serving high populations of English learners.
Fulfill Our Commitment to IDEA: Despite its commitment to adequately fund the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), the federal government has fallen short of its promises. As Senator, I would fight for investments in IDEA so that students with disabilities have access to a free, appropriate education, without school districts and the state having to foot the federal government’s portion of the bill.
Protect the Civil Rights of LGTBQ Students: The Department of Education should be a leader in protecting the rights of LGBTQ youth and funding LGBTQ training for educators. It has shirked its duty to support students under Secretary Betsy DeVos. Since 2017, for example, Secretary DeVos dismissed every Title IX case presented to the department on behalf of transgender students and their right to use the restroom associated with their gender identity. Such discrimination can make school a traumatizing environment, and children can’t learn when they don’t feel safe. The department has a responsibility to hold school districts accountable for incidences of bullying, exclusion, and harassment against LGBTQ students.
Advocate for Rural Schools: Rural schools face unique challenges, particularly during COVID-19, and internet access is at the top of the list. As governor, I was proud to expand broadband across the state, but we have not yet reached everyone. Many educators and families in rural communities still face internet access issues, which have hampered the transition to online learning during the pandemic and widened the digital divide. As senator, I will make expanding high-speed internet nationwide a key priority. In addition, there is incredible work being done by educators in rural Colorado and across the nation. In the U.S. Senate, I will encourage the Department of Education to find ways to connect these leaders to share best practices and access resources specifically designed to bridge learning outcomes between rural and urban communities.
MAKE HIGHER EDUCATION MORE ACCESSIBLE
Address College Affordability: Student loan debt is a crushing burden for tens of millions of Americans. It is larger than the GDP of 175 countries. This debt load limits future opportunities and is a drag on our economy. If elected to the U.S. Senate, I will fight to make higher education affordable for all Americans. This means ensuring service- and mission-based pathways to loan forgiveness by expanding Public Student Loan Forgiveness (PSLF). In addition, I support making community college accessible to all regardless of ability to pay, expanding Pell grant eligibility, investing in minority-serving scholarship programs such as TRIO and Gear Up, streamlining FAFSA, reducing the cost of student loans by allowing borrowers to refinance at a lower rate, strengthening protections for students and their families from predatory lenders, and accelerating the consideration by the Department of Education of federal student loan forgiveness requests. Education is the pipeline to opportunity, and, as senator, I would continue the commitment I made as governor to ensure that every Coloradan can afford to attend college and graduate.
Support Equal Access to a College Degree: Minority-Serving Institutions, such as Historically Black Colleges and Universities, Tribal Colleges and Universities, Hispanic-Serving Institutions, and Asian American & Native American Pacific Islander-Serving Institutions, do essential work to address discrimination in education. As your senator, I will make sure these institutions have the funding they need to continue their vital missions. And for students who go to college but are unable to complete their degree, we must collect quality data on racial disparities in graduation rates as well as policy interventions that work best to address these gaps.
STREAMLINE TRANSITIONS TO THE WORKFORCE
Expand the Use of Apprenticeships Nationwide: As governor, I pioneered a new way to organize and fund high-quality apprenticeships through CareerWise. The job training program works to provide students with valuable work experience, a paycheck in the tens of thousands, and free college credit—all while still in high school. In an effort to make the teacher corps better reflect the diversity of the student body, for example, CareerWise is helping train students as paraprofessionals, with the opportunity to receive credentials and preferential hiring at their high school upon graduation. The federal government should expand these types of opportunities so that more students can graduate with an industry-recognized credential or certificate that prepares them for success in higher education and the workforce.
Support Alternative Paths to Higher Education: Congress can make higher education more accessible by incentivizing states to adopt concurrent enrollment programs, which enable students to take college credit while still in high school and can save families thousands of dollars in the process. In addition, as senator, I will work to expand access to high-quality career and technical education by providing more funding for the Perkins Career and Technical Education (CTE) Act. And I intend to build on my work establishing the Pathways in Technology Early College High Schools (P-TECH) program in Colorado as governor. These public-private partnerships offer students six years of training for both a high school and associate’s degree and have helped thousands in Colorado — many of whom are the first in their families to attend college — prepare for achievement in high-paying STEM careers.
Prepare Students for Careers in Renewable Energy: Colorado has committed to 100% renewable energy by 2040. We will need students to graduate with the skills and knowledge necessary for 21st-century jobs in this sector. Congress should consider specific funding for skills training programs that can prepare students to contribute to reaching our climate goals while securing well-paying jobs that can help them provide for their families.