Ten Democratic presidential candidates, 30 questions. This was the scope of a question-and-answer forum held Friday at the National Education Association’s annual assembly in Houston.

The forum, “Strong Public Schools 2020 Presidential Forum,” was a chance for 10 of the top contenders to deliver their pitches on education and answer questions from NEA delegates in efforts to woo the coveted union endorsement.

The NEA — of which the Hawaii State Teachers Association is an affiliate — is the country’s largest labor union, representing about 3 million educators nationwide.

In a bit of national exposure, two Hawaii teachers saw their questions selected and asked among about 1,800 questions submitted in advance through the NEA’s campaign website.

HSTA Teachers and Staff jubilate after vote passed in their favor thru the senate.
HSTA members seen in a 2018 photo at the Hawaii State Capitol. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

One of those was the very first question lobbed to the first candidate on stage, Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont.

“How are you going to increase salaries to make teaching more attractive so that we’ll have less of a teacher shortage nationwide?” asked Mireille Ellsworth, an English teacher at Waiakea High on the Big Island, via pre-recorded video.

Sanders’ response underscored his pledge for every teacher in the U.S. to receive a minimum $60,000 salary and the need to cancel student debt.

Ellsworth later told Civil Beat she has been teaching for 20 years in the Hawaii DOE and even with a master’s degree, has not reached the $60,000 threshold in pay.

Ilima Intermediate teacher Vicki Parker Kam’s question went to U.S. Rep. Tim Ryan of Ohio. It dealt with the issue of gun violence in schools.

Ryan, who said his wife is a public school teacher, said he supports universal background checks and studying gun violence as a public health issue. He also referenced the importance of social and emotional learning in the schools, with the need to have a mental health counselor and nurse in every school so kids feel connected to each other and their teachers.

“He had some real thoughtful answers,” Kam, an academic growth coach at Ilima Intermediate, said later. “I would like to hear more in-depth from all the candidates on this. As we get closer to election time, what will be their stance on gun control?”

Out of its 13,500 members, the HSTA sends about 110 teacher delegates to attend the NEA annual assembly, where they vote on issues and discuss business items.

Many of the candidates who appeared on stage pledged to nominate an educator to be their U.S. education secretary if elected.

The entire forum can be viewed here.

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