Michael Bennet had “a moment” at last night’s debate–that’s not good news for public education


Michael Bennet, US Senator from Colorado and presidential candidate, had what the pundits this morning are calling “a moment” at last night’s Democratic Debate on CNN. Let’s hope that moment ends immediately.

Ironically enough, Bennet’s big moment came as he waxed poetic about “America’s public schools”, a topic that has received a depressingly minuscule amount of attention. Because while Bennet can point to his experience as Superintendent of the Denver school system for 4 years, his record in that position could well serve as the trailer for a dystopian movie of the disastrous impact of the corporate education reform agenda on the public schools of one of America’s most vibrant urban centers.

In case you don’t know much about Bennet–and really, how could you?–here’s a little primer…

  • Like our current Secretary of Education, Sen. Bennet never attended a public school himself. He attended the posh St. Alban’s school as a child; “the kind of go-to prep program that serves a lot of DC’s political elite.”
  • Although he had no educational background in teaching, or experience in public schools, Bennet was appointed Superintendent of Denver’s schools from 2005-09, the position that launched his bid for US Senator. While in that position, Bennet was a huge charter school cheerleader
  • He was a proponent of “school co-location,” a practice in which charter schools are “located” in space within an existing public school building–and a practice that often creates damaging tensions in school communities.
  • Bennet also forced through a contentious teacher merit pay system that left veteran teachers feeling demeaned and devalued. This punishing strategy was drawn directly from the venture capitalist/investment manager playbook–which should come as no surprise given Bennet’s background as…you guessed it: a lawyer and investment manager. Bennet’s merit pay ploy also contributed to the lingering discontentment among Denver’s teaching force, leading to this year’s teacher strike in Denver.
  • Bennet also pursued an aggressive school closing campaign, with devastating results:

No decision was more controversial or fraught than the one to close Manual High School, a northeast Denver institution with a storied legacy that had struggled immensely in the preceding decade. Bennet was attacked for ignoring the community’s wishes and inadequately planning for what would happen to hundreds of displaced students, many of whom would never finish high school.

Bennet seems to have realized that his record as a pro-charter, anti-teacher corporate reformer may prove to become a drag on his candidacy for president, and has attempted to distance himself from the Trump/DeVos education agenda–such as it is–with a public statement criticizing the Secretary, calling her nomination “an insult to schoolchildren and their families, to teachers and principals, and to communities fighting to improve their public schools all across this country”.

Given the alignment of Bennet’s education policy positions with those of Ms. DeVos, this is an exceedingly narrow needle to try to thread:

  • both Bennet and DeVos are big supporters of charter schools, and enemies of teachers unions–Bennet was a disciple of hedge fund guru Phillip Anschutz, the founder of a billion dollar anti-education foundation and owner of the publishing company “behind the anti-teachers’ union movies ‘Won’t Back Down’ and ‘Waiting for ‘Superman'”–as a result, Denver now has more charter and “innovation” schools than traditional public schools
  • both Bennet and DeVos favor “school choice”, a policy that has been toxic in both DeVos’ home state of Michigan, and Bennet’s adopted state of Colorado
  • both Bennet and DeVos are ardent supporters of alternative certification programs, like Teach for America, that provide a “fast track” to the classroom for uncertified and unqualified applicants, and replace veteran teachers with short-term “edutourists”
  • both Bennet and DeVos are proponents of “portfolio school districts,” an approach to school organization and governance that’s proven to be a disaster in New Orleans and many other communities
  • both Bennet and DeVos have targeted teachers’ pension funds as a means of destabilizing school systems and hastening the glide path to privatization

Letting education destroyers like Michael Bennet spout off about how “schools are segregated” without challenging him on his position on charter schools, which are the biggest factor in increasing school segregation, is how you know *none* of the candidates either…

a. know very much about charter schools or public education

b. care very much about charter schools or public education

And it’s a reminder that the pundits running these debates are more interested in “good TV” than they are in reasoned discussions and dialogue on important issues, like the candidates’ positions on charter schools, vouchers, and school privatization

As my friend and colleague at Eclectablog, Jason Sattler, suggested in his recent editorial for USA Today

Democrats have proven they have a big tent. Now it’s time to kick the clowns out.

And if you care about making sure that all children have a strong, well-funded, locally-governed, democratically-managed public school to attend, let’s make sure that Michael Bennet is in the front seat of that clown car.

Credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/donkeyhotey/47045117564