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Hillary Clinton Declares: I Sweat the Policy Details on Education, Children’s Issues

By Andrew Ujifusa — July 29, 2016 6 min read
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Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, in her historic acceptance speech here Thursday, pledged to provide broader access to a quality education, praised teachers in the couse of attacking her GOP rival Donald Trump, and highlighted her past work on behalf of students with disabilities.

Her speech was light on K-12 policy specifics, in keeping with a Democratic National Convention that has largely bypassed substantive education talk in favor of more general rhetoric. And she also leaned on language often used by the teachers’ unions, some of her staunchest and earliest allies.

Clinton, the first woman to receive a major party nomination, said she would to build a country where parents can “send their kids to a good school no matter what ZIP code you live in.” That’s a line straight from the National Education Association’s list of talking points about education.

Excoriating Trump for his remark at the GOP convention last week in Cleveland that “I alone can fix it,” Clinton mentioned a litany of professions, including “teachers who change lives” who work to address the nation’s needs and problems.

Just as other speakers from previous nights of the convention did, Clinton highlighted her work for the Children’s Defense Fund, such as advocating on behalf of students with disabilities in Massachusetts, and how it led to changes in legal protections for those children.

“It’s a big idea. Every kid with a disability has a right to go to school,” Clinton said, adding that she sweated policy details “because it’s not just a detail if it’s your kid.”

She promised to push for affordable child care. And touching on a theme that’s been a top priority for her vice-presidential pick, Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine, Clinton gave a nod to career and technical education, saying, “We will help more people learn a skill or practice a trade, and make a good living doing it.”

Clinton also pledged to pass comprehensive immigration reform and to “keep families together,” touching on a theme earlier in the DNC.

Clinton mentioned that plan as well on Thursday, and also promised to “liberate” people from student debt

Clinton still doesn’t have a comprehensive K-12 plan, and she didn’t lay one out during her Thursday speech. But she has addressed specific elements of education policy, such as her plan to eventually create universal prekindergarten programs in the U.S.

Breaking the Glass Ceiling

Policy details or not, Jon Fielbrandt, a high school math and science teacher and Michigan delgeate, said Thursday night he was heartened by everything Clinton has said about bullying, standing up for teachers’ collective bargaining rights and early-childhood education.

“I’ve got faith she’s going to take us in the right direction on education,” said Fielbrandt, who’s a member of the NEA.

But he was most excited to be here Thursday night because he has two daughters.

“That feeling of that glass ceiling being broken. That means a lot,” Fielbrandt said.

Early Learning, Equity, Crumbling Schools

In an interview at the convention Thursday, Sen. Patty Murray D-Wash., said she’s “just ecstatic” about the prospect of working with a possible President Hillary Clinton on expanding access to early-childhood education.

“I just say the words to her ‘early-childhood education.’ And she says, ‘What do we need to do?’ This is a passion for her,” said Murray, ranking member of the Senate education committee.

California Rep. Xavier Bacerra raised that issue, too, in his speech Thursday night, highlighting Clinton’s plan to provide universal preschool to Americans’ 4-year-olds. And he raised Clinton’s stated “Chelsea test.” That’s Clinton’s line that if she didn’t think a school was good enough for her daughter Chelsea Clinton, it wasn’t good enough for any child.

“She’ll rebuild our crumbling schools. She’ll give our teachers the support and tools they need and the pay they deserve,” Becerra said. (Presidents don’t directly control and can’t dictate teacher salaries, although a portion of the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act directed funds to shore up local funding for schools.)

David Wils, an 8th grade social studies teacher in North Carolina, gave brief remarks Thursday night—but he didn’t talk about K-12.

Instead, Wils, who has $35,000 in student loan debt, detailed his belief that Clinton would help relieve the college debt burden for Americans.

“Teaching offers so many rewards. A big salary isn’t one of them,” Wils said.

The nation has two educational systems, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said in his speech during the 7 o’clock hour: one for rich students, where they work on laptops; and one for poor students, where the most sophisticated technology they encounter is a metal detector.

“That is not educating every child equally,” said Cuomo, who’s had an uneven relationship with the New York State United Teachers.

Reps. Tim Ryan of Ohio and Becerra promised the crowd that Clinton would put people to work building schools. She expressed a desire to rebuild crumbling schools earlier this year.

Track Record With Children

When education was discussed throughout the convention, much of it dealt with Clinton’s work in her younger years to help children disadvantaged in various ways.

President Bill Clinton made that work a major focus of his Tuesday night speech, ticking off the nominee’s efforts in Alabama and Massachusetts, for example, to help put a spotlight on segregated schools and inequality for students with disabilities, respectively. And in Arkansas, Clinton recalled, the nominee worked to improve early-education programs, overhaul the state’s academic standards, and change the school funding setup.

That night, both Bill Clinton and Dustin Johnson, an 5th grade teacher in Arkansas, also discussed Clinton’s work on improving classroom instruction and educational standards.

In fact, Clinton said in Iowa last December that, “I wouldn’t keep any school open that wasn’t doing a better-than-average job,” although her campaign later clarified that she wasn’t intent on shutting down schools en masse.

Connections to Education

Speakers this week also connected hot-button issues in the campaign to education.

On Wednesday Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut spoke about the 26 students and school staff killed at Sandy Hook Elementary in 2012.

And the daughter of the school’s principal, Erica Smegielski, said the nation should not have “our teachers and principals going to work in fear” of gun violence.

The school-to-prison pipeline, meanwhile, made it into the speech given by Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont on Monday.

Clinton’s one-time rival for the Democratic nomination, Sanders urged the nation to make sure young people are not “rotting in jail cells” and added, “Hillary Clinton understands that we have to invest in education and jobs for our young people.”

The same night, Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts highlighted Clinton’s plan to provide free tuition for public colleges and universities. And the children of undocumented immigrants also spoke about their fears of Donald Trump and their confidence that Clinton would support them.

Photos: Clinton and Kaine after she finished her acceptance speech; the floor of the DNC the previous day; DNC attendees hold signs in favor of Clinton on Wednesday. (Deanna Del Ciello/Education Week)

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Alyson Klein, Assistant Editor contributed to this article.