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Pete Buttigieg releases $1 trillion-plus plan for early-childhood and K-12 education

South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg speaks during a campaign event on Thursday at New England College in Henniker, N.H. (Cheryl Senter/AP)
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Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg is unveiling a broad new education plan on Saturday that pledges to spend $700 billion over a decade to create a high-quality child care and preschool system that he said would reach all children from birth to age 5 and create 1 million jobs.

The 37-year-old mayor of South Bend, Ind., also promised to spend $425 billion to strengthen America’s K-12 public schools, targeting federal investments and policy to help historically marginalized students. He would boost funding for schools in high-poverty areas as well as for students with disabilities, and promote voluntary school integration. And he said he would ensure that all charter schools — which are publicly funded but privately operated — undergo the same accountability measures as schools in publicly funded districts.

With Buttigieg rising in some polls in the early state races for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination, new scrutiny is being given to his proposals and his efforts to win over African American voters, who constitute a key part of the party’s base but who have not largely warmed to his campaign.

His newly released education plan shows that Buttigieg, like the other Democratic candidates, would move the country’s federal education policy away from that of the Trump administration. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has put her focus not on the traditional public school districts that enroll the vast majority of American schoolchildren, but on expanding alternatives to them, such as charter schools and programs that use federal funding for private and religious school tuition.

The more than $1 trillion in Buttigieg’s plan would be spent over 10 years and would come from “greater tax enforcement” on the wealthy and corporations, according to a Buttigieg campaign spokesperson, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. He would not impose a new tax on the super-rich, said the spokesperson, who did not detail how much money the mayor believes he can realize from uncollected taxes.

According to the nonprofit Tax Policy Center, the most recent report by the Internal Revenue Service on the gap between total taxes due and total taxes collected on time was prepared in 2016, covering the tax years 2008 through 2010. For those years, the IRS reported an average annual gross gap of $458 billion, though $52 billion was recovered later, leaving an annual net tax gap of $406 billion.

Buttigieg’s education plan details a push to help communities integrate their schools racially and economically, which research shows is beneficial to black and white students. The mayor pledged to invest $500 million into communities that want to undertake integration efforts. And he said he would reinstate Obama-era guidance on the voluntary use of race in state- and district-level strategies to achieve integration, removing restrictions on the use of federal funds to pay for busing that would be part of integration efforts.

He also pledged triple funding for Title I — the largest federally funded educational program, intended to help schools with high concentrations of students who live in poverty. But that added funding would be targeted to states and districts that “implement equitable education funding formulas to provide more state and local resources to low-income schools.”

America’s public schools are funded heavily, though not exclusively, through property taxes, leaving schools in poor neighborhoods with fewer resources. Federal money intended to equalize that doesn’t come close to doing so. Requiring changes in formulas to get federal Title 1 funding would probably be controversial in states and districts where education policy decisions have long been made locally.

“Far from putting our kids on a level playing field, America’s education system takes already vast disparities and makes them worse. Some public schools give first graders iPads on the first day, others are struggling to afford textbooks,” Buttigieg said in his plan.

“Some parents are easily able to afford quality early education programs, others struggle to find any form of child care while they balance multiple jobs,” he said. “Some children sit in air-conditioned classrooms and spend one-on-one time with teachers who can give them the mentorship they need to thrive, other children sit in overcrowded, overheated classrooms where their teachers never get to know them well enough to realize what they are capable of.”

Buttigieg’s new education proposals reflect a more moderate approach to education improvement than those of the two most liberal candidates in the Democratic race: Sens. Elizabeth Warren (Mass.) and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.).

The mayor, for example, pledged to ensure that all charter schools are as accountable to the public as traditional public schools — without saying how — but he did not call for stopping federal funding of new charter schools. Warren has called for an end to federal spending for new charter schools, while Sanders has pledged to freeze that money. Warren has come under intense criticism for her charter stance from supporters of those schools.

Sanders and Warren have called for free college tuition for all, while the mayor’s recently released higher education and workforce development plan calls for lowering college tuition and fees on a sliding scale, with free college for those students whose families earn up to $100,000. Former vice president Joe Biden, who has topped the polls more consistently than any of the other candidates, has also taken education positions less expansive than Warren’s and Sanders’s.

Buttigieg’s big initiative in this plan concerns early childhood, for which he has pledged to spend $700 million to create a system to provide child care and prekindergarten to all children, which he said is more than 20 million. He said it would create 1 million new jobs in that sector.

According to the plan, no family would have to pay more than 7 percent of their income in early-learning costs, and families earning below median income would pay between zero and 3 percent of their income, reducing spending that he said often exceeds 20 percent of income. Families who live in poverty would pay nothing for early-childhood care and school.

To build an early child care and education system, Buttigieg would take existing federal funding streams and use them to finance a new universal subsidy program while strengthening Head Start and Early Head Start programs, according to the plan. It would also provide mental health and other wraparound services for students and families.

Here are some of the measures Buttigieg is pledging to enact if he becomes president:

  • Spend $700 billion to provide affordable, universal, full-day, year-round child care and pre-K for all children​, from infancy to age 5.
  • Raise the salaries of early-childhood educators and K-12 teachers.
  • Double the proportion of new teachers and school leaders who are people of color in the next 10 years by, in part, establishing new guidelines for the use of federal funds aimed at recruiting, training and supporting teachers.
  • Ban for-profit charter schools​ and ensure equal accountability for public charter schools.
  • Provide the full amount of funding that the federal government promised to states when it passed the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, which is 40 percent of the cost. Federal funding covers about 15 percent of the cost.
  • Reinstate Obama-era guidance to address disciplinary disparities in early education and K-12​ and work to reduce the use of exclusionary discipline that targets black and Latino students.
  • Expand mental health services in schools​ for students and teachers.
  • Expand funding for English-language learners and bilingual programs.