DES MOINES, Iowa -- Colorado Senator Michael Bennet says he loves the idea of the US government providing a free education, but not for the same age group as some fellow Democratic candidates for president.
"I’m running against a bunch of people who are spending their time talking about free college. If it were up to me we’d be talking about free preschool, not free college," Bennet told a group of early childhood educators on Thursday in Des Moines.
"Preschool kids don’t vote so it's an obvious reason why they’re not the priority for this field of Democrats," he says.
Bennet is a former school superintendent for the Denver, Colorado school district. Today he met with a group of early education specialists at Jesse Franklin Taylor Early Childhood Education Center in Des Moines before releasing details of his education policy.
Bennet spent nearly an hour with the group, asking questions and listening more than talking. Bennet says he was amazed to learn that the number of Des Moines students who qualify for free and reduced lunches is the same as the much larger district he used to lead. But he says he's seen a lot of similarities between Iowa and Colorado, and not all of them good.
"My sense traveling around Iowa is that you are suffering from the same thing we are in Colorado which is just a complete under investment in the public education system," Bennet said, "We are not investing the way that our parents and grandparents invested in us. It's not even close."
Bennet says the problems are worse for early childhood education programs. They don't receive the same amount of funding or federal protections as K-12 education. That lack of funding drives down salaries which in turn makes it harder to recruit and maintain employees. That leads to substandard programs and facilities.
The fix is simple but not politically easy, according Bennet: increase funding. That doesn't just mean dumping money into schools, though. Bennet would like to see the Child Tax Credit that parents receive increased. He'd also like that money to be paid out in monthly stipends, not just calculated into your taxes at the end of the year. Giving parents money throughout the year would allow them to pay for childcare when they need it.
Bennet summed up the struggles of parents with a story he was told by a mother in the town of Rifle, Colorado.
"This one woman said to me ‘I work so that I can have health insurance, and every single dollar that I make goes to pay for this childhood center so I can work.’ She’s just trapped in the triangle and that is the story of America right now.”