The Intersection: Jun 2016

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What the 2016 Presidential Candidates Are Saying about Education

Despite an ongoing public debate around the role of the federal government in schools, one thing is clear: Our next President will continue to impact the direction of education policy in the United States.

Indeed, most major changes to American schools have resulted from federal policy. One needn’t look further than No Child Left Behind (NCLB) — President George W. Bush’s signature education law — to see how much influence the Commander in Chief can wield on the way our students learn.

As schools, teachers and parents prepare for the full implementation of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), the 2015 rewrite of the broadly-reviled NCLB, in the 2017-18 school year, the next occupant of the White House will have considerable say over the way key regulations are implemented and state accountability plans are approved.

What’s more, our 45th President will presumably put forth a strong policy agenda on topics such as universal pre-K, college affordability and school district reform — perspectives that will set the tone for their term and shape the national dialogue on education.

If history — and current campaign rhetoric — is any indication, it’s not likely that education policy will play prominently in the race for the White House. But the stakes for our nation’s students remain just as high.

Bearing that in mind, let’s take a look at what the 2016 Presidential candidates are saying — and importantly, not saying — about how they’d tackle key issues in American education today.

On the record: What the candidates have said (so far) about education 

Universal pre-k

Although education frequently serves as a linchpin for a host of divisive issues, such as income inequality, wage stagnation and unemployment, the need for high-quality pre-K to help children — especially those from underserved communities — enter school ready to succeed has emerged as a surprising point of consensus that many Democrats, Republicans and independents agree upon.

Hillary Clinton
“We have got to have early childhood education, especially starting with low-income disadvantaged kids, if we’re going to prepare kids to succeed when they get to elementary school.” (Meeting with Newsday Editorial Board; 4/11/16)

Bernie Sanders
“We must do away with the archaic notion that education begins at four or five years old. For far too long, our society has undervalued the need for high-quality and widely accessible early childhood education.” (Testimony before the Vermont House and Senate education committees; 2/19/14)

Donald Trump
“I agree with [investing in our youngest children]. There’s nothing like starting young…getting that education and that young upbringing is so important.” (WMUR-TV “Conversation with the Candidate” sponsored by Save the Children Action Network; 2/27/15)

Choice and charter schools

Charter schools, which receive government support but operate independently of the school district, are hotly debated among K-12 education advocates and policymakers. Clinton, Sanders and Trump have all voiced opinions on this issue, and there are meaningful differences among them.

Hillary Clinton
“I have for many years now, about 30 years, supported the idea of charter schools, but not as a substitute for the public schools, but as a supplement for the public schools.” (South Carolina Town Hall; 11/7/15)

Bernie Sanders
“I believe in public education, and I believe in public charter schools. I do not believe in privately controlled charter schools…I support experimentation, but I do not want to see money leave the public schools.” (CNN Town Hall in Columbus, Ohio; 3/13/16)

Donald Trump
“Competition is why I’m very much in favor of school choice. Let schools compete for kids…Professional educators look to claim that doing so would be the end of good public schools. Better charter or magnet schools would drain the top kids out of that system, or hurt the morale of those left behind. Suddenly, the excellence that comes from competition is being criticized.” (Excerpt from Crippled America: How To Make America Great Again by Donald J. Trump)

Higher education & college affordability

There is growing recognition that two-thirds of all jobs will require some form of education beyond high school by the end of this decade, yet America is not producing the talent it needs to keep pace with the global economy. A postsecondary credential has never been more important. It’s also never been more expensive, and much lip service has been paid on the campaign trail to improving college affordability.

Hillary Clinton
“I believe that we should make community college free. We should have debt-free college if you go to a public college or university. You should not have to borrow a dime to pay tuition…I disagree with free college for everybody. I don’t think taxpayers should be paying to send Donald Trump’s kids to college.” (CBS Democratic Debate in Des Moines, IA; 11/14/15)

Bernie Sanders
“Today, in many respects a college degree is the equivalent of what a high school degree was 50 years ago. In the year 2016, we need to make public colleges and universities tuition-free!” (Rally at Alliant Energy Center, Madison, WI; 3/26/16)

Donald Trump
While Trump has not released a specific proposal for addressing the rising cost of college, his leadership of Trump University indicates his support of for-profit colleges. The university was originally touted as the next promising model for online education, but is now under regulatory and legal scrutiny for the questionable quality of its curricula and predatory lending practices — a fate it shares with other for-profit schools. (See also: Donald Trump billed his ‘University’ as a road to riches, but critics call it a fraud, The Washington Post)

What’s absent from the debate – and why education likely won’t be a major 2016 issue

These statements by Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump offer a glimpse into what kind of education agenda each of these candidates would pursue if he or she were elected. But it’s also important to note what the presidential aspirants aren’t saying about education — and indeed, there are still a number of education issues about which they have either said little or nothing. So why has education been a disappointingly inconsequential issue in 2016? We see two explanations:

  1. Perhaps the simplest and most obvious reason is that Americans aren’t as concerned about education as they are about national security or the economy. Just six percent of voters reported that education was the single issue they were most interested in having the next President address when he or she takes office in January (compared to 17% – economy; 14% – immigration; 11% – national security; 7% – terrorism), according to a February 2016 Gallup poll.
  1. Another take: Even education — which once enjoyed an easy appeal that the GOP and Democrats could unite around — has become another cause for party infighting. After more than a decade of aggressive federal education policy, the rift between teachers unions and school reformers continues to deepen for Democrats, while advocates for Bush-era accountability have been rebuked by Republicans for allowing Washington to meddle in matters of the states. So it’s no wonder that candidates are remaining tight-lipped on education — in a primary cycle and political climate already dominated by bluster and bullishness, it’s wiser to keep mum than potentially inflame a core constituency.

While Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump have made some modest efforts to address education on the campaign trail, exactly how this important issue will factor into their presidential persona, as it has for many of their predecessors, remains yet to be seen.

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