When presidential candidates exit the race, there’s always a question of what they will do next. Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders (I) recently expressed an interest in leading the Health Education Labor and Pensions Committee now that he won’t be campaigning for the White House.
In a June interview on CSPAN, Sanders said that, if Democrats win the majority in the Senate, he would choose to chair the HELP committee. Though Sanders acknowledged that Washington Sen. Patty Murray (D) is currently positioned to be the next chair, since she is the ranking member of the committee, he said he’s interested in working on these issues in the Senate.
“I don’t know what the dynamics are and where Patty may or may not go, but the HELP committee is an important committee… The Democrats on the committee are pretty progressive. And it also deals with the issues I’ve been involved in my whole life,” Sanders said.
Murray has long been praised as a low-key politician who gets things done through making connections across the aisle. She hasn’t yet given any indication that she plans to step aside.
But if Sanders did lead the committee in the near future, what would his priorities be? His voting record and the statements that he made during the presidential debates help provide some insight.
Improving the quality of K-12 education for all students
During his time in the senate, Sanders has sponsored legislation aimed at creating a more equitable education system from pre-K to high school.
For example, he sponsored legislation in 2013 that would have amended the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) to provide more support to community schools, which offer services, such as counseling, inside or in close proximity to the school. He also sponsored a 2011 bill that would have provided grants to schools that wanted to encourage students who dropped out of high school to re-enter.
When it comes to pre-K access, Sanders introduced the Foundations For Success Act, which provides competitive grants to states that allow for children from 6 weeks old to kindergarten to have a full-time early care and education program. The full-time part of this legislation is important, because it makes it easier for low-income parents to work and, in turn, provide their child with more resources.
Sanders has opposed school vouchers, which teachers unions argue divert money away from struggling public schools. He has also said that charter schools, also heavily criticized by teachers unions, are fine as long as they follow the same standards as public schools. Although charter schools vary in quality, as public schools do, there is concern about the level of charter schooloversight in some states coupled with the fast growth in the number of charter schools during the Obama administration.
He also did not support the final version of the major education legislation signed into law in 2002, No Child Left Behind, because he believed the law punished schools with few resources in disadvantaged communities. In November, Sanders voted for the conference committee version of the rewrite of the 2002 law, the Every Student Succeeds Act, which was less focused on testing and allowed states to create their own accountability systems and through offering more support to low-income schools and disadvantaged student populations, such as homeless students.
During and after his campaign, Sanders became more vocal on issues of racial prejudice within the nation’s schools specifically. At a Democratic debate in Flint, Sanders highlighted Detroit’s “collapsing” school system as an urgent matter. During the Democratic National Convention, he drew attention to the “school-to-prison pipeline,” referring to students of color who are pushed into the criminal justice system through racial bias at school.
“This election is about the leadership we need to pass comprehensive immigration reform and repair a broken criminal justice system. It’s about making sure that young people in this country are in good schools and at good jobs, not in jail cells. Hillary Clinton understands that we have to invest in education and jobs for our young people, not more jails or incarceration,” Sanders said.
Lowering the burden of student debt
Of course, the education issue Sanders has focused on most is reducing student debt. He introduced the College for All Act in 2015, which would require the federal government to take on two-thirds of public college tuition and require states to pay for one-third of tuition. The bill cuts student interest rates to a little over two percent and expands federal work study programs.
Although activists have been drawing attention to student debt for years — the Debt Collective, an offshoot of Occupy Wall Street, is owed a lot of credit for that — Sanders has played a major role in bringing the idea of “debt-free” higher education into the mainstream.
In some progressive circles, Sanders’ ideas don’t go far enough. There has been some criticism of the idea that college students would be “debt free” if they didn’t have to pay for tuition. After all, there are other fees associated with attending college — including the cost of books, pricey meal plans, and housing expenses — that run very high for students in many areas of the country.
Other critics took the opposite approach to his plans, arguing they would be difficult to implement. Clinton’s campaign, along with many higher education exerts, often framed Sanders’ ideas as “impractical.”
Nonetheless, Clinton recently adopted some of Sanders’ higher education policy ideas into her own platform, which was a huge win for the Sanders campaign. In July, Clinton introduced a proposal to allow families with an income up to $125,000 to forgo paying for tuition at in-state public colleges. Her plan would allow for a gradual increase in the family income cap, meaning that the plan would start by allowing families making $85,000 a year to benefit and would rise by $10,000 each year over the course of four years.
When asked during the same June C-SPAN interview whether his plan to tackle student debt was impractical, Sanders said, “Oh I think it’s absolutely practical. It’s not only practical. It is imperative.”