Student Debt And School-to-Prison Pipeline Highlighted At DNC

Former Trump University student Cheryl Lankford speaks during the first day of the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia , Monday, July 25, 2016. CREDIT: J. SCOTT APPLEWHITE/AP
Former Trump University student Cheryl Lankford speaks during the first day of the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia , Monday, July 25, 2016. CREDIT: J. SCOTT APPLEWHITE/AP

Although education issues were largely sidelined at the Democratic debates leading up to Hillary Clinton’s nomination, they’re front and center at the Democratic National Convention this week.

On Monday, a common theme emerged among the convention speakers — talking about what the Democratic party would do to improve children’s lives. Children were mentioned a lot during these speeches, as Grist’s Rebecca Leber pointed out, and a child had a prime speaking role at the convention.

There’s a big reason why education issues are becoming more politically relevant. More information on Trump University, the for-profit “college” that promised to help students become experts in real estate like Trump himself, has been released since the debates.

Trump University has become one of Trump’s biggest liabilities in the 2016 campaign, after multiple lawsuits against it moved forward — possibly requiring Trump to take time off from campaigning this fall to testify — and after New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman was granted permission to pursue a fraud case against Trump University more than three years after filing it. The details of one of the lawsuits, including the fact that recruiters were instructed to convince poor single parents to sign up for classes regardless of whether they could pay, provided Democrats with the perfect example of Trump’s betrayal of working class people.


Clinton has referenced Trump University often in her speeches to the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers as an example of how Trump will “leave out our most vulnerable students and let them fend for themselves.”

And now, thanks to the backlash to Trump University, DNC speakers have the opening to highlight the damage done by for-profit colleges — giving attention to an issue students have been fighting to address meaningfully on a national scale for years — as well as other issues like college affordability and the inequities in the K-12 system that contribute to the school-to-prison pipeline.

Former Trump University student Cheryl Lankford on fraud

Lankford, a war widow, said she used part of her widow’s benefit toward paying for classes at Trump University. She told the crowd that Trump “preyed on vulnerable people” like herself.

“You just saw what happened to me. How Trump University cheated me out of the money I received after my husband’s death. How they broke their promises. How they stopped taking my calls,” Lankford said. “He made millions of dollars off of people like me. Millions. He cheated more than 5,000 students… These are folks just like me, who didn’t have a lot, but were told that if they paid for Donald Trump’s program, they might be able to make a better living.”

New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker on juvenile justice

Booker referenced Clinton’s work for the Children’s Defense Fund, which lobbied for legislation that would protect the rights of children with disabilities and now focuses a lot of its attention on reports advocating for disadvantaged children, especially those who may be more likely to get involved in the criminal justice system.


“Long before she ever ran for office, in Massachusetts, she went door-to-door collecting stories of children with disabilities. In South Carolina, she fought to reform juvenile justice so children wouldn’t be thrown into adult prisons. In Alabama, she helped expose remnants of segregation in schools,” Booker noted.

Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren on student debt

It was no surprise that Warren referenced education often in her speech on Monday night. Warren has devoted much of her work in Congress to monitoring for-profit colleges and their accrediting bodies. She has taken the U.S. Department of Education to task for not acting sooner to protect students of for-profit colleges and grilled the the then-president of the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools about its role in allowing for-profit college chain Corinthian Colleges to scam students.

“Donald Trump set up a fake university to make money while cheating people and taking their life savings. What kind of a man cheats students, cheats investors, cheats workers? I’ll tell you what kind of a man — a man who must never be president of the United States. Never,” Warren said. “When we turn on each other, rich guys like Trump can push through more tax breaks for themselves and then we’ll never have enough money to support our schools, or rebuild our highways, or invest in our kids’ future.”

Warren also talked about the burden of student debt — one that weighs more heavily on students in low-income neighborhoods, even if they carry a smaller amount of debt than students from middle class or affluent neighborhoods.

“We believe every kid in America should have a chance for a great education without getting crushed by debt,” Warren said.

FLOTUS Michelle Obama on equity in education

First Lady of the United States Michelle Obama gave what was roundly considered the most moving speech of the night. It wasn’t supposed to be specific on policy. Nonetheless, Obama said she trusted Clinton to support policies that steer kids out of the school-to-prison pipeline and improve the educational outcomes of students for whom English is a second language, and work to reduce student debt. Clinton has advocated for more community schools, which provide social services to disadvantaged students and recently made changes to her affordable college plan that won the approval of her former opponent Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders.


“See, I trust Hillary to lead this country because I’ve seen her lifelong devotion to our nation’s children,” Obama said. “Not just her own daughter, who she has raised to perfection, but every child who needs a champion. Kids who take the long way to school to avoid the gangs, kids who wonder how they’ll ever afford college, kids whose parents don’t speak a word of English but dream of a better life. Kids who look to us to determine who and what they can be.”

Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders on the school-to-prison pipeline

The Democratic presidential candidate did of course, refer to student debt, one of Sanders’ major focal points during the campaign, and praised Clinton’s plan to ensure that children of families making less than $125,000 a year could eventually attend public universities free of tuition. But he also referred to an issue that he spoke about less frequently during the campaign — ensuring that all students can attend quality schools. Every single state spends less all on pre-k-12 education than they do on corrections, according to data released by the U.S Department of Education earlier this month.

“This election is about the leadership we need to pass comprehensive immigration reform and repair a broken criminal justice system. It’s about making sure that young people in this country are in good schools and at good jobs, not in jail cells. Hillary Clinton understands that we have to invest in education and jobs for our young people, not more jails or incarceration,” Sanders said.