During the 2016 Democratic presidential race, when Bernie Sanders pushed making college free, it was seen as a radical idea from a fringe candidate.
The Vermont senator returned with the same idea in 2020. Only this time, it's helped propel him to the front of field.
While his “Medicare for All” plan has generated much of the attention, Sanders is going beyond his earlier education proposals. He’s pushing the same free college plan, but now he also wants to wipe out student debt, boost teachers' wages and halt the expansion of charter schools. Just this week, his campaign offered a plan to provide free universal child care and early education.
Often a quiet issue in presidential campaigns, education has remained a focal point of Sanders' campaign. His plans for colleges and schools are among the most detailed in the race, winning praise for their substance. They also are the most expensive, drawing scrutiny from opponents who cite long political and financial odds.
At Tuesday's debate in South Carolina, his rivals criticized the cost and the new taxes he's pitching. Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar questioned his accounting, saying, “The math does not add up.” Sanders insisted his financing plans are sound and have support from voters.
“Our campaign is about changing American priorities,” he said. “We are going to triple funding for low-income Title I schools because kids' education should not depend upon the ZIP code in which they live. We're going to make public colleges and universities tuition-free through a tax on Wall Street speculation. And we're going to move to make certain that no teacher in America earns less than $60,000 a year.”
By Sanders' own estimates, it would cost nearly $4 trillion over a decade to provide free college, cancel student debt and offer free child care. That's a relatively small share of Sanders' overall platform, which is estimated to cost more than $50 trillion over 10 years. He's proposing new taxes to offset the cost, but some analysts estimate his financing plans would bring in about half of what he estimates.
Still, even skeptics have credited Sanders with raising the profile of ideas once on the party's periphery. At the start of the 2016 race, no other candidates were calling for free college. But by the end, Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton had adopted a plan, and four years later, nearly every candidate is espousing some version.
“If you trace that back, it really goes to Bernie Sanders,” said Matthew Chingos, vice president of education data and policy at the Urban Institute, a Washington think tank. “Sanders made it a much more mainstream issue in the Democratic party during that 2016 campaign."
Overall, Sanders' education plans are seen as the farthest left in the 2020 race, while most other candidates have sought a middle ground. Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren backs a free college plan similar to Sanders', but she aims to cancel 75% of the nation’s student debt rather than all of it.
Others have proposed more limited plans, including Pete Buttigieg, a former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, who supports free college for low-income students only, and former Vice President Joe Biden, who backs free tuition at community colleges.
Under Sanders' free college plan, the federal government would form partnerships with states to eliminate tuition at all public colleges, universities and trade schools. States would pay one-third of the cost, while the federal government would pick up the rest.
His plan also would cancel the nation's student debt, which amounts to about $1.6 trillion, and would cap interest rates on future student loans. Sanders argues that it would jump-start the economy by freeing younger college graduates to start families, buy homes and launch businesses rather than repay loans.
His campaign says the plan would cost $2.2 trillion over a decade, to be covered by a proposed tax on Wall Street trading. Sanders says the tax would raise $2.4 trillion, but some analysts believe the tax would discourage trading and generate far less. Marc Goldwein, senior policy director at the nonpartisan Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, said it isn't likely to bring in more than $1 trillion over a decade.
“Sanders’ $2.4 trillion is well above what is understood to be the maximum amount you can get from a Wall Street tax,” Goldwein said. “They could maybe get half of that, and I’m not even sure if they could do that.”
Facing mounting criticism, the Sanders campaign issued a statement on Tuesday explaining his financing plans. But it quickly became fodder for opponents, including Biden. His campaign said the document “doesn’t even begin to fully cover the costs, and relies on fuzzy accounting for what it does cover.”
Sanders' plans have gained support from free college proponents, but other education advocates have given mixed reviews. Some say it would open college to a wider swath of Americans and provide a fresh start to borrowers. But some say it does too little to help students with costs beyond tuition and to prevent student debt from piling up in the future.
It’s also unclear how many states would participate in the federal partnership, said the Urban Institute's Chingos. States that charge higher tuition rates would get bigger payouts, giving them greater incentive to join. But others might see little value, he said, and some would likely opt out for political reasons, as states have done with federal Medicaid expansion.
Under his plan for free child care and early education, children could receive free child care through age 3, followed by free prekindergarten. It would cost $1.5 trillion over a decade, his campaign says, to be covered by a tax on the wealthy.
On other education issues, Sanders largely aligns with the two major teachers unions, which have yet to endorse a candidate. Sanders wants to ban for-profit charter schools and stop the expansion of public charters. He opposes voucher programs and rails against high-stakes testing. In his bid to become a favorite of teachers, Sanders has proposed a minimum starting salary of $60,000 for the profession.
While campaigning, he has dipped into a variety of local education issues. In January, he supported a teachers union in Scarborough, Maine, as it pushed for a new labor contract. This month, he took to Facebook to oppose the closure of a school in Washington, D.C., siding with the Washington Teachers’ Union, which had protested the move. Soon after, the union endorsed Sanders.
He also won endorsements from teachers unions in Los Angeles, Oakland and in Nevada’s Clark County, while Warren has the backing of a Massachusetts union and another in Boston. Last week, the American Federation of Teachers encouraged its 1.7 million members to support Biden, Sanders or Warren, but it has yet to issue a formal endorsement.
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