Last night, aside from a bit of last-minute pandering on student loans and college costs, education was utterly absent from the GOP presidential debate. As Politico put it this morning, “Education didn’t just take a backseat during Thursday night’s GOP presidential debate— it wasn’t invited along for the ride. There were zero questions about education over the course of the second, three-hour debate hosted by CNN. And none of the Republican candidates focused on the issue in any substantial way.” In other circumstances, that wouldn’t surprise. But this year was set to be different. Last winter, it looked like education was set to play an outsized role in the Republican contest. This was especially timely, given heated national discussion about NCLB, the Common Core, universal pre-K, college report cards, and college costs.
Education was the signature issue of early favorite Jeb Bush. Scott Walker and Chris Christie pointed to their willingness to combat the teacher unions as evidence of their willingness to do the hard stuff. Most significantly, candidates competing for the mantle of Reagan’s heir— to offer up the sunny face of optimistic conservatism— seemed to regard education as the perfect way to talk about what they would do to expand opportunity and promote inclusive growth.
Jeb Bush held up his remarkable record as a school reformer in Florida as the foremost example of his brand of can-do, conservative leadership. Rand Paul talked about school choice in urban centers as a way to explain the relevance of conservative solutions for low-income and minority communities. Marco Rubio made reforming higher education an emblem of his focus on middle-class concerns. Bobby Jindal, who has presided over aggressive education reforms in Louisiana, offered up a hefty education blueprint. All of this has been drowned out by the ascendance of Donald Trump.
More than that, though, the tenor of the GOP race has shifted. Last winter, the race was shaping up to be an upbeat contest to see which conservative reformer could put forward the most compelling approach to expand opportunity. Now, the summer has turned into a slugfest featuring ad hominem attacks, personal insults, and debates over immigration and whether candidates should campaign in Spanish.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m no fan of Trump, but I think he’s raised some valid issues and provided a healthy contrast to programmed, consultant-driven pols. I think some of the brass knuckles back-and-forth we’ve seen is useful in getting a read on candidates’ temperament and character. And I certainly don’t mean to suggest that Republican presidential candidates must focus on education, especially when the air is filled with high-profile questions ranging from Russian aggression to the Iran deal to the Planned Parenthood videos.
That said, it’s hard to see how any candidate can talk seriously about personal responsibility, opportunity, or America’s leadership without also talking about the education needed to make those things a reality. This is especially true for Republicans who are making the case for less redistribution, less government, and fewer public services.
This was shaping up to be a remarkably fruitful year for conservative thinking on education. Trump has so far ridden roughshod over the presidential aspirations of Bush, Walker, and Rubio, along with plenty of others. Thus far, the summer of Trump can count education as one more victim.
The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.