Before a crowd of thousands in her hometown of Oakland, Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., said universal preschool and college affordability would be a priority if elected president.
In her maiden speech announcing her candidacy for president in 2020, she also expressed concerns about students at risk from gun violence in their schools, and racial profiling by law enforcement that could have fatal consequences.
While education and children’s issues did not feature prominently in her speech, she did lay down major markers of her priorities were she to be elected.
“I am running to declare education is a fundamental right, and we will guarantee that right with universal pre-K and debt-free college,” Harris said. She did not provide any specifics about what she has in mind to reduce the cost burdens on college students.
For a transcript of Harris’ speech in Oakland, go here.
Harris became the first Californian to declare her candidacy in the 2020 presidential race. Others whose names have been mentioned as possible candidates are Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti and Rep. Eric Stallwell, D-Hayward. Tom Steyer, the billionaire philanthropist who has waged a media campaign calling for the impeachment of President Donald Trump, announced earlier this month that he would not be a candidate.
By saying education is a “fundamental right,” Harris referred to an issue that has been a major stumbling block for advocates in trying to generate more funding for education.
While education is a core function of government — even “perhaps the most important function,” as Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote in the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court Brown v. Board of Education ruling — it is not a right guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution.
In 1973, in San Antonio Independent School District v. Rodriguez, the U.S. Supreme Court denied claims that an unequal education violated the Equal Protection Clause guaranteed under the 14th Amendment. Since then, there have been a range of efforts at the state level to advance the notion of education as a basic right.
California played a key role in advancing the concept of education as a right under state constitutions through the California Supreme Court’s rulings in the 1970s in the three cases known as Serrano v. Priest, which outlawed the use of property taxes as the main way public schools could be funded.
In her Sunday speech, Harris also seemed to take a dig at both President Donald Trump and his secretary of education, Betsy DeVos, when she referred to”leaders who attack public schools and vilify public school teachers.” “That’s not our America,” she said.
In his inaugural address in 2016, Trump vilified an education system he said was “flush with cash, but which leaves our young and beautiful students deprived of all knowledge.” It provided an early example of the vast over-statements he has offered without any supporting facts that have come to characterize his presidency.
DeVos has been a harsh critic of public schools, while at the same promoting a “school choice” agenda that includes providing taxpayer subsidies to cover or offset tuition at religious and other private schools.
Harris also addressed the issue of gun control, and, without referring to them by name, the gun massacres on school campuses like the one in Parkland, Florida a year ago. She said she was running to promote “an America where every parent can send their children to school without being haunted by the horror of another killing spree.”
She touched on the issue of racial profiling, especially by police, sometimes with fatal consequences. Once again, she did not provide any specifics as to what she has in mind from a policy perspective.
“I’m running to fight for an America where no mother or father has to teach their young son that people may stop him, arrest him, chase him, or kill him, because of his race,” she said.
While attorney general of California and district attorney in San Francisco, Harris took a major interest in school truancy. For several years in a row as attorney general, she issued annual reports on truancy and chronic absenteeism in California. As a district attorney, she launched a student attendance initiative focused on elementary schoolchildren after noticing that 9 out of 10 homicide victims in San Francisco were high school dropouts. The program helped provide parents of chronically truant students with services to help get their children to school, as well as school-based mediation.
Aspects of the San Francisco program were later enacted into state law in 2010. The law subjects a parent to fines and even imprisonment if he or she “has failed to reasonably supervise and encourage the pupil’s school attendance, and who has been offered language accessible support services to address the pupil’s truancy.”