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Plenty of College Talk, But K-12 Takes a Backseat in First Democratic Debate

By Alyson Klein — October 13, 2015 3 min read
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There were plenty of quick shout-outs to education during the Democratic presidential candidates’ very first debate in Las Vegas. But if you were hoping for a meaty discussion of the big issues facing K-12—testing, teacher evaluation, fixing low-performing schools—you were out of luck. (That’s been a trend in the Democratic primary so far.)

There were some substantial exchanges on college access, however.

Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, who is giving frontrunner Hillary Clinton a run for her money in the polls in the key states of Iowa and New Hampshire, talked up his plan to make public colleges free for all students. Sanders said a college degree these days is similar to what a high school degree used to be 50 years ago. That’s why it should be free, he said.

Clinton, the former secretary of state, has said Sanders’ plan would allow billionaire (and Republican presidential candidate) Donald Trump’s kids to get a free pass to college. Clinton touted her own college access prescription, which would call for lowering interest rates for graduates, enticing states to hold down college costs, and calling for more transparency when it comes to college graduation rates.

“The hardest thing about going to college should not be paying for it,” she said.

On another higher education issue, Clinton said she would encourage states to offer in-state college tuition to undocumented immigrant students who came to the United States as children, known as “dreamers.” And former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley said under his leadership, his state had succeeded in passing legislation to extend in-state tuition to those students.

The candidates also spent plenty of time touting their education records, even though none of the debate’s questions centered on K-12.

Clinton talked up her work as a summer intern with the Children’s Defense Fund, an advocacy organization, and her championship of legislation for foster kids during her time in the Senate, as well as helping to create the Children’s Health Insurance Program. Later, she briefly linked early-childhood education to equal opportunity.

Meanwhile, Sanders said early on that the nation should be putting money into education, not prisons. “We need major, major reforms in our criminal justice system,” he said. “We need education and jobs rather than jail cells.” (U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan recently gave a speech on this issue.)

One of the first accomplishments O’Malley mentioned? “Making our public schools the best in America,” he said of Maryland’s public schools. Quick fact check: It’s true that the state was at the top of Education Week’s Quality Counts rankings for five years running, from 2009 to 2013. But our research center changed its methodology recently. Under the new system, the Old Line State comes in third. What’s more, voters should take any governor’s claims about their role in bolstering student outcomes with a generous shake of salt, researchers say.

And former U.S. Sen. Jim Webb of Virginia said he’s not in favor of considering race alone in affirmative action policies. That leaves a lot of poor whites behind, he said. He touted legislation he and Sanders worked on together in the Senate to bolster college access to veterans. Webb also said he wouldn’t go as far on “executive authority” as President Barack Obama. So no No Child Left Behind waivers then?

For his part, former Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee listed “funding education” as a key challenge facing the country.

Democratic presidential candidates from left, former Virginia Sen. Jim Webb, Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, Hillary Rodham Clinton, former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, and former Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee take the stage before the CNN Democratic presidential debate on Oct. 13 in Las Vegas.--John Locher/AP

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