Federal Opinion

How to Vet the Presidential Candidates on Education

A framework for separating out the campaign rhetoric from meaningful ed. policy
By Robert Feirsen — February 13, 2020 5 min read
Democratic presidential candidates Pete Buttigieg, Elizabeth Warren, Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, Amy Klobuchar, and Tom Steyer participate in a primary debate last week.

After what seems to have been endless rehearsals, the curtain has risen on the 2020 presidential primary season. Recent elections have demonstrated the power of the Oval Office on educational policy, so educators will be well served to carefully consider the stances of the candidates on matters related to pre-K-12 schooling.

In the last presidential election, education received short shrift. Discussions of the federal role in schools avoided analyses of complex issues. Funding priorities, accountability, and stubborn achievement gaps among demographic groups received little attention in favor of broad statements issued with few details.

The ground has shifted significantly since that time. Spurred by dramatic increases in teacher and parent activism, severe funding deficiencies at the state and local levels, and resistance to the legacies of such top-down reforms as Race to the Top and No Child Left Behind, pre-K-12 education has assumed a much more central role in political discussions. In December, Democratic contenders for the nomination put forth their visions and recommendations for improving our schools at a nationally televised forum on public education, an unprecedented event that would have been unthinkable in the previous presidential election cycle.

Given the increase in public engagement about education, it is not hard to envision the continuing impact of questions about schooling on the outcomes of the primaries that lie ahead, with each candidate seeking recognition as the best advocate for our country’s schools by issuing pronouncements that range from one-liners to position papers. When coupled with statements candidates make on regional concerns to win the votes of locals, the sheer mass of verbiage may make it difficult for educators to determine if espoused positions form a coherent vision of the future federal role in schools.

In the last presidential election, education received short shrift."

Fortunately, a framework exists to guide the analysis. In the 2009 edition of Educational Governance and Administration, professors Thomas J. Sergiovanni, Paul Kelleher, Martha M. McCarthy, and Frances C. Fowler conclude that four values—equity, efficiency, choice, and excellence—have dominated the history of education in the United States, a trend that shows no sign of abating. Each value has at times risen to dominance above the others, spawning reactions to rebalance the equation and, thus, initiating the cycle once again.

Using each value as a lens to vet candidate positions can help separate campaign rhetoric from critical analysis. To these four valuable lenses, I propose adding one more consideration—thoughtfulness—for assessing the potential nominees.

1. Equity: The first value refers to the concept of fairness and ensuring equal opportunity for all students, regardless of the communities from which they hail. Equity often challenges the other three values, as it frequently requires choices that favor schools serving disadvantaged populations over others. Candidates need to explain how they will address the unequal outcomes that characterize American education and how they will build and sustain consensus even as policies regarding the distribution of resources arouse inevitable controversies about priorities and objectivity.

2. Efficiency: Schools must deliver optimal results with the least amount of resources. Efficiency debates address the cost of schooling, taxation, and the relationship between spending and results, often measured by standardized test scores or other hard data. Here, candidates need to identify the criteria that determine what works best. If resources are limited (as they always are), what strategies will produce the best “bang for the buck?” What evidence do they offer that supports the validity of that view?

3. Choice: Who decides what students need? Throughout our history, the power to determine the answer has bounced from one group to another and included educators, government officials, board of education members, and, more recently, parents. Indeed, the current focus of discussion revolves around parent choice, with positions ranging from granting parents tax-supported vouchers to enroll their children in any school of their liking to implementing severe regulatory constraints on charter schools. Educators should assess the candidate platforms on these topics to determine if they present consistent positions rooted in principle and where the balance is struck between individual freedom and the broader public good. The choices families make for their own children hold consequences—intended and unintended—for the children of others.

4. Excellence: One person’s view of an excellent education or excellent school may emphasize test scores, while another’s may stress social-emotional growth, diversity, or many other characteristics. In general, excellence is associated with achieving meaningful goals with a high degree of quality. The concept of excellence is integrally connected to vision of the future, and educators should take a wide-angle view of candidate positions to answer such questions as: How is student achievement defined in the respective platforms? How does the candidate’s vision prepare students for a future in which traditional roles, careers, and lifestyles are increasingly subject to redefinition not just in the United States but around the world? How will technology facilitate—or confound—the pursuit of excellence?

5. Thoughtfulness: Schooling is a complex enterprise that resists simplistic, one-size-fits-all solutions. Candidate views on educational policy should address this challenge by recognizing the interplay of forces—both within and outside the schoolhouse—that affect what happens in classrooms. Evidence-based policy recommendations that include detailed assessments of long-term consequences can distinguish the candidates who have given serious consideration to the problems of our schools from those who offer untested theories and slogan-based reforms. Presidential candidates can also serve as role models for students by refusing to offer policy-by-sound bite and by emphasizing that their policy and legislative recommendations are reached through the analysis of verifiable information and careful consideration of differing points-of-view.

Presidents, like teachers, affect eternity. The current primary season and the general election that follows provide opportunities for educators to make informed judgments about which candidates present policies best targeted to the needs of schools across the country. Five lenses can provide the clarity that separates genuine insight from artifice.

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