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Democrats How to Talk About Public Education

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From The Nation

That should count for something in the race for the party's presidential nominationbut so close to Super Tuesday, is this coming too late?

Elizabeth Warren Attacks Bloomberg at Debate
Elizabeth Warren Attacks Bloomberg at Debate
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Elizabeth Warren enlivened and enlightened the 10th Democratic presidential debate with a soliloquy on supporting public education that reminded everyone who was paying attention that she is not just ready to govern, she is excited by the prospect.

For Warren, it was an electric moment at a point when her campaign needs juice. She's trailing in the polls and too frequently neglected by the media -- except when she is shredding billionaire contender Mike Bloomberg. Even her own supporters worry that the senator from Massachusetts is hitting her mark at too late a point in the race. Yet Warren's ability to grab hold of issues and to infuse them with insight and passion is such that she cannot be written off.

That ability was on full display Tuesday night during the all-too-brief moment when education was on the agenda. As the last debate before the South Carolina primary and the 14 contests on Super Tuesday turned to the oft-neglected issue, Warren took charge. Other candidates responded -- Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders with a progressive populist call for raising teacher pay; Bloomberg with an overtly-defensive attempt to distance himself from a record that infuriated education activists. But it was Warren who answered the question as a Democratic presidential nominee must.

"So this is one thing where a president can make a big difference all by herself," she announced. "And I'm going to start with my secretary of education. My secretary of education will be someone who has taught in public school."

Spontaneous applause erupted from a Charleston crowd that was thick with political insiders and donors -- and that, observers noted, could be heard booing Sanders and Warren during exchanges with Bloomberg.

Warren did not pause. "My secretary of education will be someone who believes in public education," Warren declared. "And my secretary of education will believe that public dollars should stay in public schools. One more thing. My secretary of education will believe that it is time to get rid of high-stakes testing. We need to support our children."

This was not the typical "I'm in it for the kids" pronouncement of the sort made by typically vague -- and often compromised -- politicians. Warren proposed a plan. Explaining that "we build a future by investing in our children," she said, "I've got a plan to put 800 billion new federal dollars into our public schools."

The moderator tried to cut her off, maintaining Tuesday night's pattern of interruption whenever the debate got interesting.

But Warren wasn't finished.

"Education is not free," she declared. "We must invest in the future of our children."

Warren's public education, public schools, public dollars argument got to the heart of the matter. She was not merely positioning in comparison with the other contenders for her party's nomination, she was framing the debate that needs to be had, in this primary season and in the crucial competition that will come this fall. American Federation of Teachers union president Randi Weingarten tweeted thanks to Warren for her message, and rightly so.

Warren was mingling smart policy with smart politics on an issue that resonates with tens of millions of Americans.

After the Trump administration debacle that is Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos -- a non-teacher who for decades has attacked public education -- and after years of assaults on public-school teachers and their union by Republican governors such as Scott Walker in Wisconsin, Warren was actually spelling out the promise of "big structural change."

Warren did so as a former elementary school teacher -- who spoke powerfully in a critical Tuesday night exchange with Bloomberg about how she was forced out of the job she loved because of discrimination based on pregnancy. She also did so as a candidate who knows that teachers and education-focused parents are particularly reliable voters. And, make no mistake, Warren needs those votes.

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John Nichols, a pioneering political blogger, has written the Online Beat since 1999. His posts have been circulated internationally, quoted in numerous books and mentioned in debates on the floor of Congress.

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