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First Democratic Debate: Five Things to Watch on Education

By Alyson Klein — October 13, 2015 4 min read
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The GOP field—okay fine, Donald Trump—has gotten the lion’s share of the 2016 attention this fall. But tonight, we’ll get to hear from the five Democrats who want a shot at the White House in their very first debate.

In case you’ve forgotten, that list includes former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, who are leading in the polls, but also former Gov. Martin O’Malley of Maryland, former Sen. Jim Webb of Virginia, and former Gov. Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island.

Here are some key questions going into the debate:

1) Will anyone talk about K-12 education? It’s been the red-headed step-child of the edu-spectrum in the Democratic primary so far. That’s not to say the candidates have been ignoring education. Clinton, Sanders, and O’Malley all have broad higher education plans. And Clinton talks a lot about early education. But they’ve all been pretty quiet on K-12.

Why? One political science professor told me that there’s not as much as a contrast here between Democrats and Republicans. And another told me K-12 has just gotten too controversial lately, what with all the heat around standardized testing and the Common Core State Standards.

Plus, K-12 is an issue that tends to divide Democrats (the whole teachers’ unions vs. “reformers” thing), while pretty much everyone on the left wants more resources and support for early-childhood education and college access. (A few days ago, all the Democratic candidates decided to skip out on a K-12 policy forum that The Seventy Four, an education news and advocacy web site founded by former CNN anchor Campbell Brown, was slated to host in Iowa along with other organizations. Brown hosted a similar event for GOP candidates in August.) We’ll see if K-12 is able to get a bit of the spotlight tonight.

2) Does standardized testing come up? Okay, the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers have spoken, and they like Clinton. But there are plenty of progressive voters, including some teachers, who might be small donors or volunteers—and they still have big questions for the candidates when it comes to whether they’ll scale back standardized testing. Some background: Sanders voted against the No Child Left Behind Act, which introduced annual, federally mandated tests, back in 2001, while Clinton voted for it. More recently though Sanders voted for a bipartisan NCLB rewrite that keeps the tests intact, even as it scales back the federal role significantly.

3) Speaking of which, what about the common core? Clinton said early on that she supports it. Chafee and O’Malley were governors of states that adopted it and have generally stuck by it. And Sanders hasn’t been throwing bombs at it. So do they all agree there’s nothing to talk about here? Or do the candidates try to draw a contrast with the common-core-bashing Republican field (Jeb Bush and John Kasich excepted)?

4) What about the policies the education “reform” wing of the party supports, like charter schools? Back in 2008, Clinton was considered the more “traditional” Democrat on education (as opposed to President Barack Obama, who supported merit pay for teachers based on test scores). But she still spoke openly about her support for charters (well, effective charters at least). And in the Senate, she also sponsored legislation that would have authorized federal support for Teach for America. Sanders, by contrast, doesn’t think teachers who are part of alternative route programs should be considered “highly qualified.”

O’Malley was governor of his state when it won Race to the Top, and Chafee supported implementation of the program in Rhode Island. Sanders, however, thought the program shortchanged rural schools.

So, do any of them bother to mention these things?

5) Okay, enough analysis already! I just skipped down to the bottom of your blog item to see what to put on my bingo chart.

  • O’Malley touting his education record in Maryland—even though researchers say he and other govs can’t necessarily take credit for their state’s success.
  • Clinton mentioning granddaughter Charlotte, in the context of early-childhood education, or just in the context of granddaughters.
  • Sanders and “debt-free college.”
  • Chafee brings up the metric system. Anyone mentioning that their family member/neighbor/former roommate’s dog is a teacher.
  • Someone makes a joke about how another potential candidate is Biden his time before getting into the race.

Photo: Democratic presidential candidates Jim Webb, from left, Bernie Sanders, Martin O’Malley, Hillary Rodham Clinton and Lincoln Chafee, right, stand on stage together as they are introduced by Iowa Democratic Party Chair Dr. Andy McGuire, center, during the Iowa Democratic Party’s Hall of Fame Dinner in July in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. --Charlie Neibergall/AP-File

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