Presidential Candidates on Education: Election Guide

The major-party hopefuls still in the race as of last week boasted widely varied records and stances on K-12.

Presidential Candidates on Education: Election Guide

Updated Guide: Compare the Candidates: Where Do Clinton and Trump Stand on Education?

The major party hopefuls still in the race as of last week boasted widely varied records and stances on K-12. (Download as a PDF.)


Hillary Clinton

Over the past three decades, former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has worked to expand access to early-childhood education, boost academic standards, and improve child health—but her track record of success is mixed.

Bernie Sanders

Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders has touched on both K-12 and higher education issues in his bid for the Democratic presidential nomination.

1. Clinton was a big fan of early-childhood education before it became the “it” edu-policy.

When she was first lady of Arkansas, Clinton spearheaded an effort to bring a program known as Home Instruction for Parents of Preschool Youth to the state. And as a U.S. senator from New York in 2007, she introduced the “Ready to Learn Act,” which would have created a new preschool program. She also pitched a universal pre-K program as a presidential candidate back in the 2008 campaign, and again in her current presidential bid.

1. Sanders voted against the No Child Left Behind Act in 2001, but for its successor, the Every Student Succeeds Act.

His vote against the NCLB law was due to that law’s emphasis on standardized testing. But over the past year, as a presidential candidate, Sanders seems to have taken a slightly different tack when it comes to testing and accountability. He backed an amendment that would have beefed-up accountability in the Senate version of what became ESSA. And he got some blowback for that position from teachers’ union members across the country who support him. (The National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers have endorsed Clinton.)

2. Some in the education “reform” camp have been bothered by her campaign rhetoric, especially when it comes to charter schools.

Clinton has long been a charter supporter. But she made waves earlier this year when she said charter schools don’t take the toughest students (unlike public schools, which have to take everyone). Since then, Clinton seems to be trying to rebuild her relationship with charter champions.

2. He’s making some very big promises when it comes to college access.

It’s no secret that college access has been a bigger deal in the Democratic primary than just about any other education issue. Sanders arguably has the most far-reaching proposal. He wants to make public college free for everyone, and pay for it by taxing “Wall Street speculators.”

3. Clinton voted for the No Child Left Behind Act as a senator, and is now a big fan of its successor.

Clinton supported the NCLB law back in 2001, but called for changes to it as a candidate in 2008. She was one of the first presidential candidates to congratulate Congress on passing the Every Student Succeeds Act, which replaced it. Clinton may have caught a lucky political break with ESSA’s passage; now she won’t have to choose between unions and the “reform” wing of the Democratic Party on sticky issues like standardized testing.

3. Sanders has been skeptical of alternative routes into the teaching profession.

When the Senate education committee considered an (ultimately unsuccessful) rewrite of the NCLB law in 2011, Sanders introduced an amendment that would have made it harder for alternative-route teachers, like those in Teach For America, to be considered “highly qualified.”

4. She’s been endorsed by the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers, but not all their members are so thrilled about it.

Clinton got the backing of the AFT in the 2008 election. (The NEA didn’t endorse in that primary.) This time, the unions went in early for Clinton, who has long been skeptical of evaluating teachers based on test scores. But many of the unions’ members would rather have seen an endorsement for her rival, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, or at least a longer process, to give the unions time to extract policy promises from Clinton.

4. When it came to marquee competitive grants, President Barack Obama did not have a friend in Sanders.

Even when Race to the Top was popular, at least among Democrats, Sanders had serious concerns about the program. The cumbersome application process, he argued, shortchanged rural states like Vermont.

5. Clinton is an unabashed supporter of the Common Core State Standards.

In one her earliest campaign appearances, Clinton voiced support for the common core. She worked to expand access to challenging courses when she served as first lady of Arkansas. In the Senate, she introduced a bill to create voluntary math and science standards, although it didn’t make it over the finish line.

5. Sanders has made educational equity a K-12 campaign theme.

He doesn’t have the long-standing relationship with minority voters that his chief rival, Hillary Clinton, is said to have. But he’s trying to take on issues that are important to those communities. For instance, on his campaign website, he addresses opportunity gaps in K-12 education, noting that black students are far more likely to be suspended or taught by a first-year teacher than their white peers are. And he’s pitched moving away from property taxes to a more equal system of funding education. Plus, Sanders has talked about the power of education to combat crime. “It makes eminently more sense to invest in jobs and education than jails and incarceration,” he said at a campaign rally in Springfield, Mass., last year. He’s also said that government jobs could help dismantle the school-to-prison pipeline.


Donald Trump

He’s never been a policymaker, but that hasn’t stopped real estate developer and Republican presidential candidate Donald J. Trump from holding a few clear views about education.

1. When it comes to getting bang for the buck in education, Trump thinks America is doing a pretty shoddy job.

Trump at a rally in Tulsa, Okla., blasted U.S. students for performing poorly on international tests compared to their peers, including some from countries he told the audience “you’ve never heard of.” It’s true that on the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), American students have not performed particularly well, although the majority of countries that outperform the U.S. are developed nations, not the “Third World” countries Trump referenced in his speech.

2. Trump opposes the Common Core State Standards.

He’s fond of calling them a “disaster,” and he attacked former rival Jeb Bush, in particular, for supporting them. In his victory speech after the New Hampshire GOP primary he declared: “We’re getting rid of common core. We’re going to educate our children locally. We educate our children locally.”

3. Gun-free school zones don’t keep children safe, they endanger them, Trump says.

In a campaign speech in Burlington, Vt., he lambasted these zones, enacted through federal law in 1990, as “bait” for people who wish to do harm. He’s also said that teachers armed with guns could have prevented the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., in 2012. He wants to get rid of gun-free school zones his first day in office, although he’d need the help of Congress to follow through on that pledge.

4. What else doesn’t help children, or education in general?

The U.S. Department of Education, Trump says. He’s called the department a “massive behemoth” and that he’d consider getting rid of it. On one occasion, he said he’d at least consider slashing the department “way, way down.”

5. If you want to know about his beliefs about education beyond K-12, there’s Trump University.

As The Washington Post reporter Emma Brown wrote last year, Trump parlayed his success in real estate development into offering a series of courses students could take to learn about the business. But Trump University wasn’t really a university at all. It was also short-lived and targeted by multiple lawsuits contending that students were ripped off by Trump’s endeavor through misleading advertising.

Reporting: Alyson Klein & Andrew Ujifusa | Photos: AP Photos in order: Robert F. Bukaty; Matt Rourke (2); Chris Carlson; Jacquelyn Martin; Jim Cole; Charlie Neibergall; Chris O’Meara
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A version of this article appeared in the February 24, 2016 edition of Education Week as 5 Key Takeaways on Education From White House Candidates