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Vocational Education, Arming Teachers, Block Grants Get Air Time in GOP Debate

By Andrew Ujifusa — October 28, 2015 4 min read
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If you were hoping that the release of test scores on “The Nation’s Report Card” would spur any notable discussion of K-12 policy at the Republican presidential debate Wednesday night, you got just a few scraps.

In the main ten-candidate GOP debate, hosted by CNBC and held at the University of Colorado, Boulder, Ohio Gov. John Kasich reiterated his plan to consolidate some 100 programs in the U.S. Department of Education into four block grants for states to use. But although he made a broad attack on the regulatory power of federal agencies like the Education Department, he didn’t use the debate to specify what exactly those block grant programs would look like or deal with.

Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, meanwhile, made a brief plea for a bigger focus on career and technical education in high school, “So that [students] can graduate ready to go to work.” That came up in the context of Rubio’s position on the H1-B visa program. And he wondered aloud why the country has effectively stopped offering vocational education—but it hasn’t. The Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Act, which gets more than a $1 billion a year, was reauthorized in 2006.

National GOP frontrunner Donald Trump attacked gun-free zones, calling them “a feeding frenzy for sick people.” That evoked his prior remarks that the teachers at Sandy Hook Elementary, the site of a school shooting in Newtown, Conn. in 2012, should have been armed.

The only education issue that merited a question from the CNBC moderators was student loan debt. Kasich called on allowing “legitimate public service” to help students pay off their higher education debt, although as with his block-grant proposal, he didn’t specify what that public service might be. Kasich also said that too many universities are spending too many resources on non-academic projects.

For her part, Carly Fiorina said student loan debt should be blamed on Washington, since it favors brick-and-mortar institutions over online colleges. Kasich also backed postsecondary online education in his remarks about how to pare down student loan debt. (Online K-12 charter schools, meanwhile, just got slammed in a report from Stanford University, as my coworker Ben Herold reported Tuesday.)

And that was pretty much it for any talk of education, at any level, during the main debate.

The Undercard

The undercard debate between the four GOP candidates at the bottom of the polling totem pole wasn’t much different. A few K-12 policy issues did get some air time, most prominently from Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal.

Jindal touted the state’s private school voucher program, and having “dollars follow the child” instead of the other way around. (That followed Jindal’s defense of for-profit colleges in which he argued that people should be trusted to make the choice to attend such colleges.) And as part of a list of examples of regulatory overreach, he mentioned the Common Core State Standards, which Jindal used to support but now vigorously opposes.

Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, meanwhile, said that vocational education and community colleges should be a key part of training more Americans to fill jobs that they may not be qualified for right now. Four years ago, he attacked President Barack Obama as a “snob” for, he alleged, saying that everyone should go to college.

And ex-New York Gov. George Pataki took a swipe at higher education in his own way, implying that in many cases college degrees merely bestowed “prestige,” compared to the value produced by many blue-collar workers.

Not Getting Traction

For the most part, fans of subtle discussions about complex K-12 education policy issues have gone begging this presidential debate season.

The Democratic debate earlier this month, for example, featured some talk about higher education access and early learning, but just a few passing nods to K-12.

And aside from a few extended remarks about the Common Core State Standards and school choice, public school policy hasn’t really made waves in the two GOP debates so far in the 2016 cycle either. The most high-profile moment for education in the GOP debates might have been when Donald Trump, the front-runner based on national polling, took a poke at former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush for supporting the common core, which Trump deemed a “disaster.”

The recent news about scores National Assessment of Educational Progress, which showed declines in math prowess among students in 4th and 8th grades, might have provided an avenue for education to make it into the CNBC debate—at least to the extent that political leaders like to link academic success (or lack thereof) to the country’s broader economic prospects. But NAEP did not get any oxygen tonight.

Photo: Republican presidential candidates, from left, John Kasich, Mike Huckabee, Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, Donald Trump, Ben Carson, Carly Fiorina, Ted Cruz, Chris Christie, and Rand Paul take the stage during the CNBC Republican presidential debate at the University of Colorado.--Brennan Linsley/AP

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