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Published in Print: January 13, 2016, as Education Still Struggling for Traction as Campaign Issue

K-12 Still Struggling for Traction as Campaign Issue

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School policy—already an underdog topic in the 2016 presidential campaign—could be further marginalized as an issue by recent developments in Washington, not the least of which is the newly minted Every Student Succeeds Act, which is expected to scale back the direct federal role in K-12 education.

None of the 15 current candidates in either major party can claim personal credit for helping the No Child Left Behind Act's successor over the finish line late last year.

And the new law resolves, at least for the next several years, some big questions about federal power over such issues as testing and teacher evaluations.

"If education was going to get any traction in presidential politics, it was going to be over reconsideration of what we had to do about NCLB," said William Howell, a professor of political science at the University of Chicago who has studied federal education policy. "But that horse has left the barn."

Also, unlike eight years ago, there's no "ED in '08" in the works. That campaign was an 18-month, $25 million effort financed jointly by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation and designed to make education issues front and center during the 2008 presidential campaign. The ED in '08 effort didn't lead to a huge wave of K-12 policy discussion that year, but may have had an impact on subsequent school advocacy.

Political Landscape

This year, education's chance for prominence may also have been hurt by the fact that former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush—a Republican and the candidate with the most extensive (and perhaps controversial) record on K-12 among the contenders in either party—has been beset by drooping poll numbers and questions about his political acumen.

Bush's record includes significantly expanding school choice and emphasizing reading in the early grades in Florida, where he was governor from 1999 to 2007. After leaving office, he founded an influential advocacy group, the Foundation for Excellence in Education, which he led until late 2014, to push for such strategies as school choice and online education.

He's also been a big backer of the Common Core State Standards. Although he's recently stressed that states should control their own standards, he hasn't reversed his previous support for the common core, as have other GOP candidates, such as New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee.

The rest of the crowded Republican field has in large part dealt with education by including the common core on a laundry list of policies to oppose.

Hillary Clinton:
The Democratic presidential front-runner has made headlines on a variety of K-12 issues.
Hillary Clinton: The Democratic presidential front-runner has made headlines on a variety of K-12 issues.
—John Locher/AP

On the Democratic side, the frontrunner, former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, has made notable K-12 headlines during her presidential bid for her remarks critical of some charter schools and of teacher evaluations that use test scores.

But it's far from clear that she plans to make K-12 a priority in her campaign, or her presidency if elected. Her statement on charters represented something of a shift in her public position on the issue, while her comments on teacher evaluations did not.

And Clinton's signature plans for education are both outside the realm of K-12. For example, she wants to provide access to pre-K for all 4-year-olds over a 10-year period. She also has focused on higher education, and college affordability in particular.

Clinton is not an exception on the higher education front. Other examples include the proposal from Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, currently her main rival for the Democratic nomination, to make tuition free at public colleges and universities.

Clinton did make waves last month during a campaign stop in Iowa—the site of the first voting, in caucuses Feb. 1—when she pushed for more K-12 funding but also said, "I wouldn't keep any school open that wasn't doing a better-than-average job." Presidential administrations have no power to close schools on their own, however, and her campaign quickly clarified that Clinton has no interest in shuttering schools.

During Democratic debates, former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley, has talked up Maryland's public school system during his tenure. But that hasn't elevated his candidacy or K-12 issues generally.

Not the Default

So far, in both the Republican and Democratic debates, only one direct question has been asked about K-12 policy—it was directed at Bush regarding his support for the common core, which the rest of the GOP field, except for Ohio Gov. John Kasich, opposes.

Aside from that brief reference on the national stage, the potential for common core to gain traction in the White House race, after its high-profile and tempestuous political history, has gone unfulfilled for the most part.

"Common core is not an animating issue for the general public. I think the testing issue is," said Patrick McGuinn, an associate professor of political science at Drew University.

Howell, of the University of Chicago, noted that while education so far is receiving, at best, meager airtime during the White House race, that hasn't always been the case in previous election years.

During an October 2000 debate between Republican George W. Bush and Democrat Al Gore, for example, the two parties' nominees had an extended exchange about vouchers, school funding, and teacher pay.

Bush lobbied for a national reading initiative that focused on the early grades, and more flexibility in teacher-hiring decisions. Gore proposed a $10,000 hiring bonus for teachers, and giving states the power to close down schools and reopen them with new principals and "a turnaround team of specialists who know what they're doing."

But while Bush, as president, took the chance to reauthorize the main federal K-12 law a year after taking office—the eventual makeover of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act known as NCLB—the next president won't have that chance until 2019, when ESSA is technically up for reauthorization.

"There's not a whole lot left to talk about," Howell said, in terms of what the next president can claim he or she will change.

Unusual Period

Advocates like Marc Porter Magee, the founder of the 50-State Campaign for Achievement Now, or 50CAN, which supports changes to the teacher labor market and test-based accountability, says there hasn't been a "high-quality conversation about education in the race on either side" in the 2016 cycle.

Yet Magee also acknowledges that states and districts, especially under ESSA, are likely to resume a greater role in setting K-12 policy in the coming years after the recent surge of federal activism under President Barack Obama.

"I think we've all kind of operated under the assumption that that was unusual and was unlikely to be sustained," said Magee, whose group hasn't endorsed any candidate for president. "We shouldn't expect the next president to have the impact on the conversation that President Obama has had on the conversation."

Jeb Bush:
The former Florida governor and GOP presidential hopeful has a deep record on education
Jeb Bush: The former Florida governor and GOP presidential hopeful has a deep record on education
—Charles Krupa/AP

In the competitive Republican field, a complex set of factors has left Jeb Bush without much chance to leverage his extensive K-12 experience as a campaign strength.

For one thing, Bush's poll numbers have shriveled. A recent survey of national polls by Real Clear Politics had Bush getting 4.3 percent, down from 15 percent in the summer, as GOP candidates who don't have a lot of history with K-12 issues, including the real estate developer Donald Trump and U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, have prospered.

And with Republican primary voters heavily focused on national security and immigration and distrustful of government on a broad sweep of issues, Bush's chance to talk about K-12 issues like accountability, as his brother George W. Bush did 16 years ago, hasn't materialized, said Howell.

"I'm not sure there ever was an opening for him to push for those sorts of things," he said of Jeb Bush.

Separately, in the GOP field, both Cruz and Trump, along with Huckabee and U.S. Sens. Rand Paul of Kentucky and Marco Rubio of Florida, have at least floated the possibility of getting rid of the U.S. Department of Education.

"It's the price of admission for the Republican presidential primary," said McGuinn, of Drew University.

Otherwise, the candidates for the most part haven't spent significant time promoting traditional GOP K-12 positions like school choice. (Among sitting senators who are running for president, Rubio and Sanders did not vote on ESSA, while Cruz and Paul voted against it.)

Light Footprint

While there's no effort in the works for this year that mimics the ED in '08 initiative, education advocates of various stripes may not care too much about its absence, or about education's light footprint as an issue, Howell said.

Related Blog

Jim Blew, the president of StudentsFirst, for one, said he'll actually be happier if points of contention in public schooling stay clear of the presidential-campaign vortex and aren't distorted by sound bites and backlash.

Blew, whose organization lobbies in state capitals for charter schools and test-based school accountability, among other policies, also said states haven't really lost as much power in recent years as some might think.

"It absolutely is cleaner when we can have these discussions state by state," Blew said.

Vol. 35, Issue 17, Pages 1,22-23

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