Education may be pivotal in the 2020 election. Here’s what you need to know.

Highlights from the Brown Center Chalkboard in 2019


As 2019 winds down, all eyes will soon turn to the 2020 U.S. presidential election. The cycle promises to dominate the news throughout next year, covering everything from the ongoing impeachment proceedings to health-care reform and more. While education traditionally may not be considered a top-tier issue in national elections, as Brookings’s Doug Harris has previously noted, times have certainly changed.

Whether it’s the ongoing debate over free college, the unique politics surrounding charter schools, or the power of teacher strikes, education promises to play a vital role in determining the outcome of the Democratic primaries and the 2020 general election. To help readers understand these often-complex topics, we’ve collected relevant Chalkboard posts from the past year that discuss the big ideas in education that are likely to be prominent next year.

We’re looking ahead by looking back—with the goal of helping you make a make a more informed decision at the ballot box.

Charter schools and school choice

Charter schools have become one of the most divisive issues within the Democratic Party. Does that spell doom for them in America? Doug Harris broke down where each candidate stands on charters, writing that “the next 12 months will be very uncomfortable for charter supporters.” Despite this, he argues that charter schooling is likely to continue its steady expansion in the new decade.

The public opinion around charters is also nuanced. Support for charters among white Democrats is plummeting according to recent poll data, but many Black and Hispanic Democrats remain in favor. Brookings’s Jon Valant argued that the growing opposition to charters among white Democrats could have significant consequences for families of color.

A frequent question around charters is how they affect traditional public schools. Do charters weaken them via financial losses, or does the added competition spur traditional public schools to improve? Paul Hill dissected conflicting studies to find the answer.

Early childhood education

Early childhood learning has also figured in the 2020 campaign so far. Reacting to Joe Biden’s “meandering response” on the word gap during a Democratic debate in September, Dana Suskind explained why the public discussion around the word gap needs to evolve: “All parents … must understand that a word is not simply a word; it is a building block for a child’s brain.”

Debate over the federal Head Start program continues into 2020 as well. In 2019, Congress authorized more than $10 billion on the program, and it enrolls almost 1 million children annually. Lauren Bauer examined new research to analyze the program’s effectiveness.

Despite the popularity of preschool, there have been questions about how long its benefits last. Christina Weiland, et al., wrote about a new study may have pinpointed one factor that does matter in determining whether the pre-K boost endures: the quality of the child’s elementary school.

Free college and student-debt relief

College affordability is grabbing headlines, and student debt continues to be a topic of debate among politicians. From free college to canceling student debt, Doug Harris discussed the different approaches that Democratic presidential candidates are taking in the lead-up to the 2020 election.

And while the conversation on free college continues, did you know that enrolling in tuition-free community college has been an option for all of Tennessee’s high school graduates since 2014? Celeste Carruthers shared five insights on the state’s innovative scholarship program, the Tennessee Promise Scholarship.

When Sen. Bernie Sanders, a presidential hopeful, proposed canceling outstanding student loans in his College for All Act, some bristled at the notion of forgiving loans for well-heeled people who can pay. But Brookings’s Andre Perry argued that a successful education plan must include everyone to help Black and low-income students move up the economic ladder.

Teacher pay

Another featured issue throughout the campaign has been the question of educator salaries. After Joe Biden announced a new education plan that increased teacher pay through Title I, Brookings’s Michael Hansen and Jacqueline Lantsman analyzed how Biden’s idea—and other proposals like tax credits in high-needs schools—could play out in the long run.

Most conversations around low teacher pay fail to acknowledge one important component: the difference in wage penalties across academic disciplines. Brookings’s Michael Hansen, et al., explained why teachers in the STEM field are hit the hardest by this issue.

Teachers in the U.S. are among the lowest paid professionals compared to other developed countries, and declining interest in teaching among young people is a worrying trend. To offset these, Brookings’s Michael Hansen and Li Feng proposed a federal loan forgiveness program for educators while they are teaching, with priority given to undergraduate debt and filling vacancies in high-need schools.

Title IX and campus sexual harassment

In November 2018, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos released the Trump administration’s long-awaited proposed regulations on campus sexual harassment, which would largely increase protections for those accused of sexual misconduct. Now a year later, and after reviewing the more than 100,000 public comments on its proposed guidelines, DeVos recently signaled that the final rules could be released soon. When they do take effect, they could become a major political debate: House Democrats promised to take “bold, immediate action” to prevent the new rules from going into effect. R. Shep Melnick examined how these changes to Title IX around campus sexual assault could affect colleges and universities nationwide—and the political firestorm they could set off.

Thanks to all of our contributors, and thanks to you for reading in 2019! Bookmark the Chalkboard and sign up for the Brown Center on Education Policy’s biweekly newsletter as we continue to bring evidence to bear on debates surrounding education policy today.