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Question for Convention Delegates: Would Clinton Mirror Obama on K-12?

By Alyson Klein — July 24, 2016 4 min read
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Hillary Clinton, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, loves to tell voters that her administration would pick up the policy baton from President Barack Obama.

But, with the Democratic National Convention kicking off here Monday, it’s tough to say how true that will be when it comes to K-12 education. That’s an area where Obama has antagonized many of the teachers that make up the Democratic Party base during his first six years in office, by tying teacher evaluation to test scores, encouraging districts to turn their low-performing schools into charters, and more.

Clinton, who was never a fan of those policies when she ran for president in 2008, has worked hard to distance herself from them on the campaign trail this go-round, too. Instead, she’s talked about building on Obama’s legacy on the set of issues he’s talked about more in his second term, including expanding access to early-childhood education, pairing academics with health and other services, and broadening school accountability beyond test scores.

Still, the perception that Clinton and Obama are on the same K-12 page could hurt Clinton here as she tries to win over delegates who supported her opponent in the primaries, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders.

“I think we need to work on her,” said Jonathan Singer, a member of the Colorado General Assembly who introduced a bill to dramatically reduce testing in the Centennial State, and a Sanders delegate. “She has to make it very clear that we have to start investing in teachers and showing that we trust them.”

And Adam Stuart Littman, a speech pathologist at an elementary school in Nevada’s Clark County and Sanders delegate, said that he’s not sure he’ll support Clinton, even though he lives in a swing state, in part because her education policy looks too close to Obama’s. Among other things, he’s disappointed that Obama and Clinton has made a big push for computer science education, instead of embracing the arts along with the sciences.

Democratic Party Priorities

Adding to Clinton’s challenges on K-12: She will be looking to soothe worried fans of education redesign who might think she’s too cozy with the National Education and the American Federation of Teachers.

Both unions gave Clinton an early endorsement over Sanders, despite big pushback from their members. And Clinton told them earlier this month that they’d always “have a seat at the table” if she wins the White House.

“The worry is that what they hear is that the table is going to have only two seats,” said Charles Barone, the director of government relations for Democrats for Education Reform, which supports Democrats who favor charters, performance pay, high standards, and more.

But he said, he gets why Clinton has released very specific proposals on college access and expanding access to early-childhood education, while she has yet to specifically outline her K-12 vision. “I think it’s politically understandable you’d want to focus on the things that the party is unified around,” he said.

What You’ll Hear in Philadelphia, and What You Won’t

If you’re tuning in to the Democratic convention this week, expect to hear plenty about early and higher education, as well as pairing health services with academics, looking beyond just test scores in judging school performance, hooking schools up with the latest technology, upping federal resources for things like extended day and after-school programs, and supporting teachers professionally.

But scheduled speakers from former President Bill Clinton, to Vice President Joe Biden, to Obama himself are likely to sidestep the K-12 policies that were centerpiece of Obama’s agenda during his first six years in office.

They might, however, bring up a more recent Obama priority: using federal resources to encourage schools to integrate.

That idea has already gotten a high profile shout-out from Clinton’s vice-presidential pick, Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia. In introducing himself to the country, on Saturday Kaine talked about how his father-in-law, former Virginia Gov. A. Linwood Holton Jr., helped desegregate the state’s schools in the seventies. Holton even sent his own children to majority black schools. Later, Kaine and his wife, Virginia’s education secretary Anne Holton, choose to send their own children to those same, integrated schools.

Two lawmakers scheduled to speak, Sen. Christopher Murphy of Connecticut and Rep. Marcia Fudge of Ohio, have introduced legislation that would make a recent budget Obama budget proposal on socio-economic integration a reality. (Even the program’s name “Stronger Together” echoes Clinton’s campaign slogan.)

And some initiatives from the 1990s could make a resurgence at the convention. Clinton has pitched a $275 billion program to help fix up schools. That was a big priority for her husband when he was president, as well as for former Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa, who is also slated to speak this week.

NEA President Lily Eskelsen Garcia and AFT president Randi Weingarten are both scheduled to speak this week. Sanders will address the convention Monday. Other speakers with big education records include Sen. Corey Booker of New Jersey, one of the few Democrats who has supported vouchers; Sen. Bob Casey of Pennsylvania, a prekindergarten fan; and Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, a vice-presidential also-ran who has made higher education access a signature issue.

Also on the list are some non-politicians with connections to education, including Dustin Parsons, a 5th grade teacher in Little Rock, Ark., and a group of students from New York’s Eagle Academy, an innovative school that hires union teachers.

Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., smiles as he is asked about running for president during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington on April 29.--Carolyn Kaster/AP

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