2016 US Presidential Candidates on Education: Bernie Sanders


Editor’s Note: In advance of Super Tuesday, this is part 1 of 5 in Education News’ series on the 2016 US Presidential candidates’ stances on education. The order of publication was determined by random drawing. Links to descriptions of each candidate’s education platform are included at the end of each piece.


Since launching his presidential campaign, Senator Bernie Sanders has filled stadiums from Phoenix to Boston with raucous young people. Small donations accumulated from throngs of twenty-somethings have fueled his campaign, and his catchphrase “Feel The Bern” has become a mantra across college campuses. Young people, particularly students, have become the backbone of the Vermont Senator’s bid for the presidency.

Younger voters have a tendency to gravitate toward the most progressive and idealistic presidential candidates. Thus, in some ways, it is no surprise that Sen. Sanders, a self-identified Democratic Socialist, has won their support. Like all voters, however, young people are motivated by the issues that matter most to them, namely education.

Sen. Sanders has outlined arguably the most ambitious and sweeping education platform in modern history. He envisions fundamentally restructuring the American education system at every level on behalf of students’ interests. Unsurprisingly, Sen. Sanders ran away with the youth vote in the Iowa Caucus, winning that bloc by a 70 point margin over former Senator and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and he looks to maintain and grow that support going into Super Tuesday.

A well-educated populous, Sen. Senator believes, will underwrite a more progressive, more productive and more egalitarian American society. “Something is very wrong when, last year, the top 25 hedge fund managers earned more than the combined income of 425,000 public school teachers. We have to get our priorities right,” he said. A Sanders administration promises to support students’ needs, teachers’ unions and education reform aggressively.

Early Childhood Education

Sen. Sanders sees early childhood education as a family value and a necessary building block to a competitive and modern workforce.

“There is perhaps no issue more important than how we educated our youth. I am very concerned that, on many levels, we are failing our youth. We must do away with the archaic notion that education begins at 4 or 5 years old. For far too long, our society has undervalued the need for high-quality and widely accessible early-childhood education,” he said in February of 2014.

In 2011, Sen. Sanders introduced the Foundations for Success Act, which was subsequently signed into law, that established a system to improve education for children from ages six weeks to kindergarten. As president, Sen. Senators wants to expand on these efforts to make sure every American child has access to full-time, high-quality and developmentally appropriate education.

K-12 Education

Sen. Sanders urged the overhaul of the No Child Left Behind Act, which required that schools nationwide administer standardized tests. He voted against the law as a congressman in 2001 because he thought it placed too much emphasis on rigid assessments at the expense of students’ problem-solving abilities, critical thinking and teamwork skills. Sen. Sanders has called for a more holistic approach to measure students’ academic success. He voted in support of the Every Student Succeeds Act that replaced NCLB.

As president, Sen. Sanders would discourage a “teach to the test” culture among educators, and has pledged to provide federal funds and resources that would allow schools to create their own accountability systems. Sen. Sanders has vowed to strengthen low-performing schools and require community-based assessments to focus on areas of student need.

Higher Education

The most ambitious ideas proposed in Sen. Sanders’s education platform concern his approach to higher education. Fundamentally, Sen. Sanders believes that no student willing and able to receive a college education should be denied because of income.

In the Senate, Sen. Sanders introduced the College for All Act that would make all public colleges and universities tuition-free. “Why do we accept a situation where hundreds of thousands of qualified people are unable to go to college because their families don’t have enough money?” he asked in an editorial written for the Huffington Post.

On the campaign trail, Sen. Sanders often recalls a time when state schools offered free education, such as the University of California system offering free tuition at its schools until the 1980s. Additionally, many countries such as Germany, Finland and Chile provide students with a tuition-free college education. Sen. Sanders wants the United States to be included among these countries.

These proposals have come under fire from critics who accuse them of being too expensive. Sen. Sanders proposes the imposition of a tax on Wall Street speculators that would generate $300 billion a year in revenue. This money would then be distributed to state education systems, which would, in turn, make their college tuition free for in-state students.

Clinton has differed from Sanders’ approach. She believes that college should be debt-free, not completely free; she also sides with critics who doubt the likelihood of the proposal’s passage. Despite questions about its feasibility, the promise of an easier path to and through college has, however, succeeded in rallying college students to Sen. Sanders’s campaign.

A Sanders administration would also forbid colleges from making students reapply for financial aid every year, and it would pressure colleges and universities to hire more faculty and increase the percentage of tenured and tenure-track professors to end what the Sanders campaign says is the exploitation of adjunct professors.

School Choice

Sen. Sanders has been a critic of school choice programs and is in agreement with major teachers unions on the issue. In a questionnaire for the American Federation of Teachers, Sen. Sanders said that he is, “strongly opposed to any voucher system that would re-direct public education dollars to private schools, including through the use of tax credits.”

Student Loans

Sen. Sanders bemoans the soaring levels of student debt in the United States, having regularly called the debt crisis “outrageous” and “grotesque.” The amount of student debt in the US is approaching $2 trillion; the average student graduates college with nearly $30,000 of debt.

In a speech at Johnston State College in Vermont, Sen. Sanders said, “We must fundamentally restructure our student loan program. It makes no sense that students and their parents are forced to pay interests rates for higher education loans that are much higher than they pay for car loans or housing mortgages.”

The College for All Act would cut current and future student loan interest rates from 4.32% to 2.32%. In terms of ethics, Sen. Sanders believes that the government does not have a moral right to profit from student loans.

Whatever the outcome of the Democratic presidential contest, Sen. Sanders has not only raised a host of important issues concerning education reform but has also developed a network of supporters, comprised mostly of students, around those reforms. Thus, these issues, such as free public education, student loan reform, and universal early childhood education (and their associated costs), will not fade from the public debate any time soon.

FeelTheBern.org, an unofficial campaign site not affiliated with the Sanders campaign, has a detailed breakdown of Sen. Sanders’ positions on an array of education-related issues.

Other Candidates’ Education Platforms

Marco Rubio (R)
Ted Cruz (R)
Donald Trump (R)
Hillary Clinton (D)