During the 2016 Democratic presidential race, when Bernie Sanders pushed making college free, it was seen as a radical idea from a fringe candidate.
The Vermont senator returned with the same idea in 2020. Only this time, it's helped propel him to the front of field.
While his “Medicare for All” plan has generated much of the attention, Sanders is going beyond his earlier education proposals. He’s pushing the same free college plan, but now he also wants to wipe out student debt, boost teachers' wages and halt the expansion of charter schools. Just this week, his campaign offered a plan to provide free universal child care and early education.
Often a quiet issue in presidential campaigns, education has remained a focal point of Sanders' campaign. His plans for colleges and schools are among the most detailed in the race, winning praise for their substance. They also are the most expensive, drawing scrutiny from opponents who cite long political and financial odds.
At Tuesday's debate in South Carolina, his rivals criticized the cost and the new taxes he's pitching. Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar questioned his accounting, saying, “The math does not add up.” Sanders insisted his financing plans are sound and have support from voters.
“Our campaign is about changing American priorities,” he said. “We are going to triple funding for low-income Title I schools because kids' education should not depend upon the ZIP code in which they live. We're going to make public colleges and universities tuition-free through a tax on Wall Street speculation. And we're going to move to make certain that no teacher in America earns less than $60,000 a year.”
By Sanders' own estimates, it would cost nearly $4 trillion over a decade to provide free college, cancel student debt and offer free child care. That's a relatively small share of Sanders' overall platform, which is estimated to cost more than $50 trillion over 10 years. He's proposing new taxes to offset the cost, but some analysts estimate his financing plans would bring in about half of what he estimates.
Still, even skeptics have credited Sanders with raising the profile of ideas once on the party's periphery. At the start of the 2016 race, no other candidates were calling for free college. But by the end, Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton had adopted a plan, and four years later, nearly every candidate is espousing some version.