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K-12 Gets Scant Attention in Final Debate: What Education Issues Got Ignored?

By Andrew Ujifusa — October 19, 2016 8 min read
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On Wednesday night—for the third and final time in 2016—a presidential debate featuring Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton and Republican nominee Donald Trump was virtually devoid of substantive K-12 talk.

In an exchange roughly 40 minutes into the debate in Las Vegas, Clinton made a pitch for a stronger educational system from early education through college, and she said she would help the economy through better career and technical education programs.

“I feel strongly we have to have an education system that starts with preschool and goes through college,” Clinton said.

Later, she cited her background working for the Children’s Defense Fund and other work on education while she was first lady in Arkansas. Clinton also touted investments she wanted to make in education, although she didn’t provide more specifics. Clinton also briefly referenced the Clinton Foundation’s Healthy Schools program.

But other than those quick references to education, there was little for K-12 observers and advocates to chew on. Trump did not mention the topic at all.

So concludes a long, parched walk in the desert for education in these debates.

Education was barely mentioned at all in the first debate, with child-care issues getting slightly more attention. And in the second debate, Clinton criticized Trump for setting a bad example for children, following a question about that issue posed by a teacher—but other than that, there wasn’t much at all.

Voter-Backed Questions

But which education issues could the candidates have discussed that might have been interesting to voters?

Before the second debate, the Open Debate Coalition took questions for the candidates, and the top 30 questions were considered by the CNN and ABC moderators. No surprise: Education did not make the cut for questions that voters actually got to ask. Nevertheless, these were the top 10 education-related questions for the second debate on the Open Debate Coalition’s website by the vote count, as of late Tuesday:


  • What is your plan to address the mounting student loan debt crisis? (21,984 votes)
  • Do you support returning control of our schools to parents and local communities? (6,564 votes)
  • What will you do as president to fend off the privatization of public education? (5,525 votes)
  • How do you plan to deal with college tuition? (5,267 votes)
  • How will you expand and enhance career and technical education programs? (5,208 votes)
  • What is your plan to improve early-childhood education in this country? (3,885 votes)
  • Will you work to get corporations out of public education? (2,838 votes)
  • Do you believe that the cost of higher education is out of control? (2,053 votes)
  • What are your thoughts on the Common Core State Standards? (1,965 votes)
  • How does state-testing through ESSA help or harm students and schools? (1,914 votes)

Asking the Education Week Staff

We also asked our Education Week colleagues what they would ask the candidates, based on controversial or high-profile issues on their respective beats. Here are the questions we got from them, along with links to their blogs and stories they’ve written about the topics, and some useful background:

• “How would you ensure that the public records generated by your administration are transparent to the public in accordance with existing law? And what is your position on whether the communications generated by new technologies such as Snapchat and Cyber Dust should be subject to open records laws?” - Ben Herold, Digital Education

Background: Clinton has been dogged by controversies surrounding her use of a private email server while Secretary of State and, more recently, the publication of email messages apparently obtained through a hack of the account of her campaign chairman. And back in 2015, Clinton joked that maybe the disappearing-message app Snapchat was the solution to her problems.

But it turns out that such tools have landed K-12 officials in hot water, too. For example, in Fresno, Calif., the superintendent acknowledged having senior staff communicate with an app called Cyber Dust during a time period for which the district ended up being investigated by the FBI over no-bid construction contracts. Cyber Dust messages are automatically erased after a maximum of 24 hours. (Cyber Dust was founded by billionaire Mark Cuban, himself an interesting player in this campaign.)

• “Would a Clinton or Trump administration continue civil rights investigations of schools and districts that, in the area of discipline, fail the disparate-impact test? How should schools handle discipline issues? Is there an appropriate federal role in this debate, or is it best left to state and local decisionmakers?” - Evie Blad, Rules for Engagement

Background: According to the most recent federal data, black K-12 students are nearly four times more likely to receive an out-of-school suspension than white students, and students with disabilities are more than twice as likely to be suspended as their peers. In 2014, the Education and Justice departments released first-of-its-kind discipline guidance which said that, under federal civil rights laws, schools are obligated to consider whether their student discipline policies are drafted and implemented fairly and consistently and whether they may have a “disparate impact” on certain student groups.

While this move has been praised by civil rights organizations, which say it is necessary to end the “school-to-prison pipeline,” it has been criticized by some conservative lawmakers and think tank types, who say it will cause chaotic learning environments by discouraging schools from disciplining students who really need it.

• “Both of you, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, have floated proposals that would make child care more affordable for families. What would you do at the federal level to help increase the quality of the child care that children receive?” - Christina A. Samuels, Early Years

Background: In this July 2015 blog post, we looked at how public support for child-care centers often doesn’t match the actual costs of educating those children. That’s even true when states like Pennsylvania have a sliding scale for their child-care subsidies that reward facilities for smaller class sizes and hiring better-educated teachers.

“For example, a 4-star-rated child-care center would be rewarded by Pennsylvania with a higher subsidy of up to $9,789 per child—but the cost of care for that child is $12,789,” Samuels reported. And the skill levels of those working at many child care facilities is also the subject of scrutiny.

• “Would you favor increasing the amount of money the federal government gives to schools, and if so, for what purpose or purposes? And how will you improve school building infrastructure?” - Daarel Burnette II, State EdWatch

Background: School spending stood at $623 billion nationwide in fiscal 2014, according to recent federal statistics. The federal share of that funding has declined in recent years.

And back in March, Clinton indicated she supported additional money for school infrastructure improvements. We never got a clear answer about what exactly she meant, but Clinton might have been referring to a couple of programs from the 1990s, the School Renovation, IDEA and Technology Grants, and the Qualified Zone Academy Bonds.

• “Hey, what’s for lunch? No, seriously: What should be for lunch (and breakfast, and maybe dinner) in America’s public schools?” - Evie Blad

Background: The meals that are served to the nation’s students have actually been the subject of a massive federal food fight that’s occupied lawmakers for much of President Barack Obama’s second term.

The expected reauthorization of the Child Nutrition Act, which sets the rules for school food programs, could unwind the heightened nutrition standards championed by first lady Michelle Obama for their potential to combat childhood obesity. Those standards have also been criticized by conservative lawmakers and school nutrition workers, who say they have contributed to unnecessary red tape for schools and garbage cans full of discarded food that students refused to eat. At one particularly fierce moment, the White House threatened to veto a bill that would have included riders restricting the rules’ application in schools.

And here’s how one kid hanging out near the White House recently felt about the issue:

The Clinton Foundation has done some work on childhood obesity that includes school lunches, so we might be able to guess what a President Hillary Clinton would do in this issue. (As we noted above, Clinton mentioned this work briefly in the debate.) But would she take less of a hard line on the issue? Donald Trump, meanwhile has a known affection for fast food and disdain for regulations, so his position might seem pretty clear ... but maybe we shouldn’t assume that.

• “As president, would you force the issue of special education spending into the forefront by proposing a budget that includes ‘full funding’ for the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act?” - Christina A. Samuels, On Special Education

Background: When the law that would become the Individuals with Disabilities Education was passed in 1975, Congress authorized funding states for a maximum of 40 percent of the average cost to educate a special education student. (That “average cost” isn’t connected to the actual cost of delivering various special education services, but to average per-pupil K-12 expenditures in the country.)

Congress has not come close to reaching that level, and in recent years, the federal share of special education costs has hovered around 16 to 18 percent. However, “full funding” for IDEA would cost about $35.6 billion, according to estimates.

Photos: Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton speaks as Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump listens during the third presidential debate at University of Nevada, Las Vegas, on Oct. 19 (Mark Ralston/AP); Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton shakes hands with Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump during the presidential debate at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y., on Sept. 26. (Julio Cortez/AP)


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