WASHINGTON - Ten Democratic presidential candidates underwent the equivalent of an oral exam by teachers - nearly ten thousand of them - whose top concerns were supporting public schools, increasing pay, decreasing the number of standardized tests and getting Betsy DeVos out of the Department of Education.
The forum, in Houston on Friday, was the firsts of its kind by the National Education Association, the country's biggest union.
"Teachers are on the front lines fighting for our kids," said one of the candidates, Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts. "This is about teachers who are going to lead that fight. Let's put a teacher in the White House."
Teachers - and their unions - have historically been a crucial constituency for Democrats seeking office, supplying money, volunteers and votes. Teachers have been flexing their political muscle in several states by going on strike to protest stagnant pay and school funding.
The NEA, with 2.7 million members, said it doesn't plan to make an early endorsement in the crowded Democratic primary campaign. During the last presidential election, the union gave Hillary Clinton its support over Bernie Sanders in October 2015.
"We are not here at this point in the campaign promoting a candidate, what we are doing is promoting our agenda," said the union's president, Lily Eskelsen Garcia.
The other candidates who spoke and answered questions included: former Vice President Joe Biden; Sens. Kamala Harris of California and Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota; former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro; Washington State Gov. Jay Inslee; former Texas Rep. Beto O'Rourke; New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio; and, Ohio Rep. Tim Ryan.
Harris has aggressively sought support from the teachers. She was the first candidate to issue a education policy for kindergarten through high school. It largely focuses on increasing teacher salaries by an average of $13,500 a year through a $315 billion federal investment over the next decade.
Her plan has already received praise from Randi Weingarten, the president of the second-largest teachers' union, the American Federation of Teachers.
Nearly every ever other Democratic candidate has followed suit by calling for higher pay. Sanders wants to triple Title I education funding, which benefits disadvantaged students, bolster funds for special education and teacher preparation programs, and institute a base salary of $60,000, though he has not specified how.
Warren has yet to release a plan for K-12 education but is a longtime supporter of labor unions and teachers. On the campaign trail, she regularly recounts her job as a special education teacher early in her career.
She's also been vocal in her criticism of DeVos, President Donald Trump's education secretary, a billionaire and advocate of charter schools and taxpayer-funded school vouchers.
Warren has promised that her secretary of education would be a former public school teacher and on Friday several other candidates including Biden, who also supports bolstering pay, joined the call.
Harris promised that in her administration, "the person who is nominated will be someone who comes form public schools, and I also promise you that you will be at the table to help me make that decision."
Absent from the NEA forum was New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker who has vowed to lead the "boldest pro-public school teacher campaign there is" but spent a large part of his career promoting alternative education options.
Although he voted against DeVos's nomination, he served alongside her on the board of Alliance for School Choice and promoted many of the policies she is still championing, such as vouchers. As mayor of Newark he greatly expanded charter schools in the city, with mixed results.
O'Rourke also has a complicated history with charter schools. His wife, Amy, founded a nonprofit charter school more than a decade ago in their hometown of El Paso, Texas.
He has largely avoided discussing this on the campaign trail and instead has stuck to his plan to increase teacher salaries, decrease the reliance on standardized tests and implement universal pre-K. At the NEA forum, O'Rourke said he opposed for-profit charter schools but believes "there is a place for public non-profit charter schools."
Sanders also called for a complete ban on for-profit charter schools.
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