Democratic presidential candidate and former Rep. Beto O’Rourke spent a few hours on a North Miami Middle School basketball court Tuesday afternoon.
He wasn’t shooting hoops, though. He was taking questions from South Florida educators looking for a candidate to support.
The day before the first Democratic debates begin in Miami, O’Rourke spoke with teachers union members in English and Spanish at the American Federation of Teachers town hall. The event was the latest of a series of town halls that have been taking place around the United States with several Democratic candidates.
Public education is a hot topic in Florida, a state that suffers from a teacher shortage, ranks 46th in teacher pay and grapples with legislation to arm school employees.
AFT president Randi Weingarten introduced O’Rourke to an audience of teachers union and community members before he gave a speech and took questions. Weingarten said the town halls give rank-and-file union members the opportunity to speak to presidential candidates face-to-face and get involved in the 2020 election.
The first question tackled charter schools, asking O’Rourke: Are you willing to join the NAACP, ACLU and 50 other civil rights group calling for a moratorium on charter schools?
O’Rourke said he’s committed to public education and that there’s a role for charter schools as long as they are held to the same standards as traditional public schools.
“If those who work within them are freely allowed to organize, they could become part of the ability to innovate and share those innovations across the public schools in this country,” he said.
Another hot topic was teacher pay. A few audience members asked O’Rourke what he would do to make sure public school teachers are paid a living wage and public schools are funded properly. He proposed increasing the amount of money the federal government puts toward the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.
“If we fund our federal responsibility fully, then we’re going to free up resources at the state, local and school district level to make sure we’re investing in teachers, public educators and everyone who interacts with that child through the course of the day,” he said.
He added that increased public education funding would come from his administration “rewriting the tax code” to tax capital at the same rate as the average income to generate billions of dollars.
“The tax code is a great place to find those resources to make sure we fill that commitment,” he said.
When asked about what characteristics he’d look for in a secretary of education appointee, O’Rourke said he’d want a public school teacher to replace Betsy DeVos.
“Only that schoolteacher, who is going to bring other schoolteachers to the table with her or with him, is going to guide us to a much better education policy that allows our schools to fulfill their potential.”
After the event, O’Rourke spoke to reporters about this week’s debates and national politics.
He’ll be one of 10 candidates on Wednesday night trying to get voters’ attention. He said he’s planning to stand out on a crowded stage against New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, U.S. Rep. John Delaney of Maryland, U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii, U.S. Rep. Tim Ryan of Ohio, former HUD secretary Julian Castro, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio and Washington Gov. Jay Inslee.
“We’ve got 60 seconds to respond to some of the biggest questions that are on the minds of the American people right now,” he said. “If I can reflect back — what I’ve learned, what I’ve heard, by listening to people across this country — I feel very good about this debate.”
Broward Teachers Union president Anna Fusco, who has taught elementary school students for decades, said O’Rourke has good ideas to increase teacher salary but needs to be more educated on how some charter schools are for-profit organizations that cherry-pick students.
“It’s too far gone that it’s not public education,” she said.
In Broward, Fusco said the public school teachers she represents are juggling the concerns of low funding and armed school staff. While she can’t tell which of the 20 candidates will gain the most traction, she said she’s looking forward to a candidate who listens to public school concerns.
“None of us would be here today without an education,” she said.