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Education and the Campaign

Digging into the politics of education in an election year to find out what the candidates are talking about — or not
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As presidential candidates trade views on immigration, foreign policy, health care, and a multitude of other issues, one essential element of American life seems to be missing from the conversation: K-12 education.

To find out why, and to dig deeper into the dynamics of election-year politics, Usable Knowledge sat down with policy analyst Martin West, an associate professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and executive editor of Education Next.

Why haven’t the presidential candidates been talking about K-12 education?

Education as a central issue in national-level politics in the United States is the exception rather than the rule. Many people have strong memories of 2000, when education was foremost in voters’ minds, but that hasn’t been the case since that time, and really wasn’t the case before that time.

This reflects the fact that the United States has a strong tradition of state and local control when it comes to K-12 education, and that has very deep roots. Especially right now, I also think there’s a bit of reform fatigue when it comes to the federal role in education, and there are questions in a lot of people’s minds about what the federal government can accomplish. Congress also just re-authorized the major federal education law, now called the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), in a way that addressed the most pressing problems with respect to federal education policy, which eliminated any pressure on candidates to talk about it.

But the candidates weren’t talking much about education before ESSA was passed.

Well, K-12 education also doesn’t emerge in presidential politics often because it doesn’t create a clear divide between the parties. Among Democrats, you have a substantial group that favors a muscular federal role in education accountability in particular, many of whom have strong ties to the civil rights community. But you also have Democrats who are skeptical of accountability requirements, many of whom have strong ties to the teacher’s unions. On the Republican side, you have many who want to dramatically reduce the federal footprint in federal education policy, and then others who accept that there is going to be a federal role, and think it needs to enhance accountability and expand choice where possible. So it’s not an uncomplicated issue for candidates to talk about.

Americans also tend to be concerned about the performance of the nation’s schools as a whole, but generally satisfied with, and therefore maybe complacent about, the performance of their own local schools. Right or wrong, people tend to think that their local schools are doing okay.

One K-12 conversation we’ve heard recently is about student suspensions. Can you talk about that?

In a recent speech, Hillary Clinton embraced the Obama administration’s efforts to reform school discipline policies that rely heavily on suspension and expulsion, noting that these policies disproportionately affect black students. She pledged to devote $2 billion dollars to that cause. I expect that we will hear more about this issue from her and from Bernie Sanders as they seek to win the support of black voters in the Democratic primaries. Federal scrutiny of local decisions about school discipline is something that gives many Republicans pause, so this is something that could carry over into the general election season.

We’ve also heard candidates discussing higher education. How are higher education issues different from K-12 education?

When it comes to higher education and potentially preschool education, there are clearer divides between the parties. Higher education has not traditionally been a major issue in national politics because there’s been more agreement about the basic financial aid system working okay and our universities being generally the best in the world. But over the past decade, there have been growing concerns about the costs of higher education, the debt students are taking on, and the large number of students who are not completing college.

This has led to a range of proposals for dramatic changes in how we finance and govern higher education, which is an area where the federal government does play a large role through Pell grants and student loans. Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton are arguing for different forms of a debt-free or tuition-free college, and Republicans are talking more about changing the ways in which we finance college and the structure of student loans, as well as accreditation as a potential barrier to entry in higher education. You have different diagnoses of and solutions for the problems, which is more unifying for each party.

In the context of a general election, I think we can expect even more attention to higher education, which is a pocketbook issue, one affecting many, many middle-class families, and where there are clear differences between the parties.

Any other education issues that politicians could be talking about more?

School choice in the context of K-12 education is an interesting issue politically. For two decades now, the issue of charter schools has been one that both parties at the level of presidential politics have supported. Bill Clinton was an early champion, and George W. Bush and Barack Obama spoke favorably about charters and supported the federal program that provides funds to start new charter schools.

Hillary Clinton has indicated some skepticism about the extent to which charter schools actually serve the most disadvantaged students, raising questions about whether she would remain a champion of the charter school movement. That creates an opportunity for a divide between the Democrats and a Republican candidate, who surely would be a champion.

But even in the context of K-12 education policy, charter schools are a relatively small piece of the picture when it comes to federal policy, and it’s hard for me to imagine that becoming a front-burner issue.

What about Common Core?

I think ESSA largely has taken that issue off the table. Although some on the right don’t quite accept this, Every Student Succeeds makes it quite clear that states get to decide which standards they use, and the federal government has no ability to question their decisions. Even those Republicans who have been supportive of the Common Core have been critical of the federal involvement in it, and Democrats who are supportive of the Common Core have realized that the best way to enhance its chances for success is to make sure it’s not perceived as a federal initiative. It depends on who is nominated, I guess, but I don’t think there’s likely to be enough of a substantive disagreement to drive a sustained focus.


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