Despite roughly five hours of debate between Republican presidential hopefuls at their latest two-tiered showdown last week, discussion of education amounted to little more than a few offhand references.
Unlike the August GOP debate, which featured a substantive exchange about the Common Core State Standards between two candidates, there was no such interplay about the standards—or any other K-12 topic.
That was true both of the main event, featuring the 11 candidates with the best poll numbers, and the undercard, featuring four lower-polling candidates. And none of the CNN moderators asked a direct question about education, in a debate that skewed heavily toward subjects such as foreign policy.
Although the Democratic candidates’ debate on Oct. 13 provides a fresh opportunity for schools to get more attention, education hasn’t gotten much notice from the candidates in either party on the campaign trail in recent weeks.
The one prominent exception was last month, when six Republican candidates, including former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina, and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, focused on K-12 policy at a New Hampshire forum hosted by The Seventy Four, an education news and opinion website.
When public school policy did come up at the Sept. 16 debate—held at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, in Simi Valley, Calif.—it did so as part of attacks against alleged overregulation by Washington and policies backed by President Barack Obama and his administration.
Common Core Mentioned
In the main event, developer Donald Trump was the only candidate to directly mention the common core. In an exchange with Bush, Trump mentioned tangentially that the former governor supports the common core, which the business executive deemed “is also a disaster.”
It’s an attack Trump has lodged against Bush before—among the 16 GOP candidates, only Bush and Ohio Gov. John Kasich support the common core. (All but three of the 46 states that adopted the common core along with the District of Columbia have officially kept the standards, though the pace and nature of their implementation of it has varied.)
Bush did not respond to Trump’s gibe. But Bush did subsequently highlight one of his signature education policy accomplishments during his tenure in Florida: the creation of what he called in the debate “the largest voucher program in the country.” The state’s tax-credit scholarship program is the nation’s biggest by enrollment, and the state also has a voucher program for special education students. Bush also approved a state voucher program that was struck down by the Florida Supreme Court in 2006.
Another Floridian, Sen. Marco Rubio, took a general swipe at Washington’s role in education when he rattled off a list of what he sees as improper intrusions by the federal government into policy, including that “it regulates schools that belong to local communities.”
Walker, the Wisconsin governor, who is one of the candidates with a relatively extensive track record on K-12 issues, responded to a question about whether to raise the minimum wage by arguing that getting a good education would ultimately be more helpful to students.
He also touted his victory over “big-government union bosses” when he successfully fought to, in effect, end collective bargaining for most public employees in 2011, then survived a recall campaign the next year. “We didn’t back down,” he said.
On child vaccinations, a hot topic in recent years because of discredited allegations that they are linked to autism, Trump implied that the size of the vaccine doses given to children troubled him, rather than the vaccines themselves, and also told a story about the child of one of his employees that implied a link between vaccines and autism.
And Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul said that although he had his own children vaccinated, he did not believe the government should force parents to do so.
Several states have strengthened their requirements for vaccinations in recent years. Earlier this year, California made headlines by becoming the third state to eliminate most of its exemptions to the requirement that children receive certain vaccinations before enrolling in school.
Addressing the other end of the education system, retired pediatric neurosurgeon Ben Carson, in his closing remarks, derided the idea of “free college” as a seductive but misguided policy. (The Obama administration backs the idea at the community college level.)
Although a federal judge ruled against Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal in his lawsuit against the common-core standards on the same day he took part in the four-man undercard debate, the event’s moderators did not ask him about the case or his extensive campaign against the standards.
During that debate, CNN moderator Jake Tapper did raise the situation involving 14-year-old Ahmed Mohamed, a student at an Irving, Texas, high school who brought a clock he made at home to show his teacher, only to be arrested by police on suspicions that he had brought a bomb to school. Ahmed attracted support on social media from Obama and U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.
Tapper brought up Ahmed to discuss broader questions about discrimination, not education specifically, however.
The next chance for the Republican contenders to discuss education issues as a group will be on Oct. 28, when the University of Colorado at Boulder will host a GOP debate and CNBC will broadcast it.
A version of this article appeared in the September 23, 2015 edition of Education Week as GOP Presidential Debaters Give Glancing Mention to Education