K-12 Fights for Airtime as Presidential Election Issue
Competing concerns, candidate priorities may tamp down topic's profile
Is K-12 education poised to catch fire in the policy debates leading up to November's presidential election, now less than 100 days away?
Don't bet on it.
Based on the dynamics at the just-finished Democratic and Republican conventions—and the profiles of the two nominees—K-12 is likely to lag behind other issues in a tumultuous election year dominated by national-security concerns, immigration, and sheer force of personality.
Donald Trump, the Republican standard-bearer, and a succession of other speakers at the GOP convention in Cleveland July 18-21 barely discussed education beyond a few perfunctory nods to school choice.
Equity: Says children in poverty should be given the same opportunities as others in the educational system, and opposes test-based accountability systems that “falsely and unfairly label students of color,” teachers, and schools.
Testing: Pledges to end what it calls the “test-and-punish version of accountability” and encourages states to “develop a multiple-measures approach to assessment.” Supports parents’ right to opt their children out of standardized exams.
Charters and Choice: Gives a nod to charter schools, with some caveats, and opposes those run by for-profit entities, stating: “We believe that high-quality public charter schools should provide options for parents, but should not replace or destabilize traditional public schools.”
Transgender Rights: Comes out against laws like North Carolina’s that deny transgender individuals the right to use public facilities, like school restrooms and locker rooms, that match their gender identity and not their one from birth. It states: “We will oppose all state efforts to discriminate against LGBT individuals, including legislation that restricts the right to access public spaces.”
English-Language Learners: Says the party will “expand access to English-language education” as part its efforts to uphold the Obama administration’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals and Deferred Action for Parents of Americans, and to ensure opportunities for undocumented students who came to the United States as children.
'School-to-Prison Pipeline': Pledges to “end the school-to-prison pipeline and build a cradle-to-college pipeline instead, where every child can live up to his or her God-given potential.”
Digital Access: In the name of providing a better education, the platform pledges to connect every household in the country to high-speed internet.
Curricular Offerings: Pledges continued support for arts and music education programs in public schools.
Lead Poisoning: Says the party will work to eradicate lead poisoning, “which disproportionately impacts low-income children and children of color and can lead to lifelong health and educational challenges.”
Transgender Rights: Sharply rebukes the recent federal guidance on transgender students’ access to restrooms. States that Title IX’s protection against discrimination on the basis of sex has been twisted by the Obama administration in an attempt “to reshape our schools—and our entire society—to fit the mold of an ideology alien to America’s history and traditions.” Adds that the administration’s “edict to the states concerning restrooms, locker rooms, and other facilities is at once illegal, dangerous, and ignores privacy issues.”
Federal Aid: Criticizes the amount of federal spending on K-12 since 1965—the year the Elementary and Secondary Education Act was passed—and states: “Clearly, if money were the solution, our schools would be problem-free. More money alone does not necessarily equal better performance.”
School Choice: Recognizes a variety of school choice programs, including education savings accounts, tax-credit scholarships, and the District of Columbia’s opportunity scholarship program (which distributes vouchers): “We support options for learning, including home schooling, career and technical education, magnet schools, charter schools, online learning, and early-college high schools.”
Student Data Privacy: Says the “vast” collection of student data and information without parental consent or notice is “wholly incompatible with the American experiment and our inalienable rights.”
Common Core State Standards: “We encourage the parents and educators who are implementing alternatives to common core, and congratulate the states who have successfully repealed it.”
The Bible and Schools: “A good understanding of the Bible being indispensable for the development of an educated citizenry, we encourage state legislatures to offer the Bible in a literature curriculum as an elective in America’s high schools.”
Local Control, Testing: Praises local control over school policy, rejection of “teaching to the test” and excessive testing.
At the Democrats' convention, where Hillary Clinton accepted the nomination July 28, there were plenty of shout-outs to early-childhood education and college access, along with a trumpeting of her long record on children's issues. But she and other Democratic luminaries in Philadelphia mostly bypassed K-12 policy talk, even though the party made some waves over how it handled standardized tests in its platform.
But Jeffrey Henig, a professor at Teachers College, Columbia University, who focuses on education and politics, doesn't expect K-12 policy to get much more of the spotlight between now and Nov. 8.
"I don't see education as being all that central to this election," he said. "Trump is so mushy on everything. It's hard to see how [his presidency] would play out on education. I think Hillary is pretty much in the clear to stake out whatever position on education that she thinks is right and is not going to hurt" with any faction of the Democratic constituency.
Playing It Safe
Clinton's play-it-safe strategy so far and Trump's almost-complete lack of specifics have left some of the faithful in both parties jittery about how their respective nominees would handle tough education issues in the White House.
Republicans in Cleveland wondered aloud if Trump would really get rid of the U.S. Department of Education, as he's hinted he might on the campaign trail—echoing a 1980 position advocated by Ronald Reagan, and long espoused by many in the party. It's a prospect that thrilled some and turned off others.
And while most Democrats are likely to be heartened to hear Clinton say she'll push for more resources for child care, college access, and student supports, a number of those in Philadelphia weren't sure just how far she'd stray from President Barack Obama's approach to K-12 on issues such as testing and charter schools.
In her speech accepting the nomination, Clinton, the first American woman to receive a major-party nomination, stuck to broad areas of agreement and outreach within her party. She pledged to work for a country where "you can send your kids to a good school, no matter what ZIP you live in," and to work with her rival for the nomination, Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, "to make college tuition-free for the middle class and debt-free for all."
Former President Bill Clinton's convention speech earlier in the week highlighted his wife's long record as an advocate for children and families, including her early work for the Children's' Defense Fund and her championship of early education and higher K-12 standards as first lady of Arkansas.
But behind the scenes, the policy fissures among Democrats were clear.
Most of the controversy centered around the party platform, which was crafted with help from Sanders supporters. The platform skewed toward the party's progressive wing, which has felt marginalized over the past eight years.
The platform decries test-based accountability systems that "falsely and unfairly label students of color, teachers, and schools as failing," and affirms parents' right to opt their children out of tests.
The National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers, both of which endorsed Clinton early on in the race, are delighted with that language.
In fact, Lily Eskelsen García, the NEA president, said on a panel in Philadelphia that the union could have written the platform. "I think we actually kind of did," she added.
And García said the forces known in shorthand as the education reformers, who successfully pushed for such Obama administration policies as teacher evaluation tied to student test scores, are now out of favor.
"Their balloon is pffftt," she said in an interview. "The corporate model is crumbling of its own absurdity."
Not everyone agrees.
Shavar Jeffries, the president of Education Reform Now, a think tank associated with Democrats for Education Reform, admitted that many of his allies are uneasy about the next presidency—especially since Republicans and teachers' unions teamed up last year to pass the Every Student Succeeds Act, which gives states and districts much more say over K-12 policy.
But Jeffries is also looking at the long game.
"There's going to be ups, there's going to be downs, there's going to be fluctuations," he said. "President Obama, we believe, produced historic change for children, and any time you're transitioning leadership you could obviously continue progress, or there could be regression."
On the other side of the coin, even the progressive-friendly platform hasn't reassured some of Sanders' supporters, who fear that Clinton would keep the status quo.
"It's going to be four or eight years of the same garbage," said Alexis Salt, a Nevada delegate supporting Sanders, and a teacher at a middle school in Clark County, in an interview early in the convention week. "More corporations getting their money. More charter schools. More choice, and that takes money from public education."
Meanwhile, Trump gave a quick plug for school choice when he accepted the GOP nomination July 21.
"We will rescue kids from failing schools by helping their parents send them to a safe school of their choice," he told a roaring crowd.
Over the course of the Republican National Convention, a smattering of speakers, including Trump's vice-presidential pick, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, also praised school choice. But no one offered anything resembling specifics.
"A lot of the rhetoric is very similar" to the 2012 and 2008 conventions, said Martin West, a Harvard professor who worked on education policy proposals for the two previous GOP presidential nominees, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and Arizona Sen. John McCain.
"At any Republican convention, you're going to hear a lot about the virtues of school choice and local control. The biggest difference [this time] is that there is little to point to beyond the rhetoric," West said.
By the time they accepted the GOP nod, however, Romney and McCain had each given at least one major speech on K-12 and put out policy documents outlining a road map for bringing more options to parents, West noted.
Trump, a real estate developer who has never held public office, has no record to look at. And he has yet to lay out a K-12 policy vision. In fact, his campaign website doesn't include a section on education.
The Right Direction
Some educators who showed up in Cleveland to nominate Trump readily admitted they didn't know where his heart is on K-12 policy.
"There's not a lot of definitive information. He just says he wants to improve education, but that's pretty nebulous," said Carol Hanson, an Iowa delegate and special education teacher from Cedar Falls.
But others say they at least trust Trump to generally steer things in the right direction.
"The main idea that I support, that Mr. Trump has said, is that education is better handled at the local level," Molly Spearman, South Carolina's state schools chief, said in an interview at the GOP convention.
Some delegates and lawmakers say the choice of Pence as his running mate might offer the most clues to where a Trump administration would go on K-12 policy.
Pence has sought—and gotten—more resources for charter schools in the Hoosier State and persuaded lawmakers to lift a cap on elementary school vouchers. And in 2014, under Pence, Indiana became the first state, officially at least, to ditch the Common Core State Standards.
Choosing Pence "was probably the best choice he could make," said Hanson, the Iowa delegate.
Vol. 35, Issue 37, Pages 1, 16-18Published in Print: August 3, 2016, as K-12 Fights for Airtime as Presidential Election Issue