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Rick Hess Straight Up

Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform.

Education Opinion

Trump and Biden Offer Little Love to the Education Middle

By Rick Hess — October 22, 2020 2 min read

For many decades, education has been most important in presidential campaigns for the way that candidates have used it to court the middle. It’s how Republican presidential candidates show they’re compassionate and how Democrats show they’re not just tax-and-spenders. The Bushes emphasized education when depicting a “kinder, gentler” America or when arguing that we needed to ensure that no child got left behind. Bill Clinton made education a centerpiece of his pledge to fight for Americans who “work hard and play by the rules,” and Barack Obama used it to make the case that his expansive proposals were about investment rather than redistribution.

Such efforts to court the middle or broaden a candidate’s appeal have been noticeably lacking in 2020, as the recent presidential debates have starkly illustrated. This has been particularly evident in education. Biden’s expansive proposals for new spending, loan forgiveness, redefining gender in schools and colleges, and stripping due process protections from Title IX are all progressive doctrine, while Trump’s stumping for “patriotism,” immediate school reopenings, and school choice are pitch-perfect for his MAGA base. Along the way, the candidates have said little to reassure centrist voters who might be distrustful of expansive Democratic spending or harsh Republican critiques of public education.

Yet, there’s a critical mass of less politically-oriented Americans who are a lot more interested in practical solutions than in the familiar jousting of the Twitter/FOX/CNN set. The other day, Stony Brook University professors Yanna Krupnikov and John Barry Ryan took to The New York Times to argue pretty compellingly that the biggest divide in America is not left versus right but between those entranced by our political/cultural wars and the bulk of Americans. As they put it:

What's really fascinating is that tuned-in Democrats worry about different topics than tuned-out Democrats, and the same phenomenon is at work among tuned-in and tuned-out Republicans . . . For example, Democrats and Republicans who don't follow politics closely believe that low hourly wages are one of the most important problems facing the country. But for hard partisans, the issue barely registers. Partisan Republicans were most likely to say drug abuse was the most important problem facing the country. But less-attentive Republicans ranked it second to last, and they were also concerned about the deficit and divisions between Democrats and Republicans. Among Democrats, the political junkies think the influence of wealthy donors and interest groups is an urgent problem. But less-attentive Democrats are 25 percentage points more likely to name moral decline as an important problem facing the country—a problem partisan Democrats never even mention.

Imagine if candidates spent less time stirring up the Twitterverse and more addressing education in terms that reflected the concerns of the less partisan among us. We’d be hearing about how education can help boost hourly wages for low-income workers, address divisions between Democrats and Republicans, and tackle moral decline. That sounds like a good deal in my book. And, look, for those readers who are moved to insist, “But this is how Biden (or Trump) is already talking about education,” well, I’ll just stipulate that we have very different definitions of what “already” means.

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.


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