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Why Aren’t Democratic Presidential Contenders Talking About K-12 Policy?

By Alyson Klein — September 21, 2015 3 min read
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Former U.S. Secretary of State and White House contender Hillary Clinton has proposals to eliminate college-debt and expand universal pre-kindergarten. And two of her rivals for the Democratic presidential nomination, Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, and former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, have also put out far-reaching proposals for significantly boosting access to higher education.

Edu-experts have picked apart and prodded at the higher-ed plans, and even Josh Earnest, a White House spokesman, said it would good for the country to have a “robust debate” on college access.

Missing from all this discussion of the bookends of education? Any sort of comprehensive proposal, from any of the leading Democratic candidates, on how they would like to reshape K-12 policy.

To be sure, Clinton gave a general thumbs-up to a bipartisan bill to rewrite the Elementary and Secondary Education Act that passed the Senate with big support from both sides of the aisle earlier this year. And as a member of the Senate and the education committee, Sanders not only endorsed the bill, he actually voted for it. O’Malley, meanwhile, has touted his K-12 record in Maryland. (More on whether he, or any of the other governors-turned-presidential-candidates, can legitimately claim credit for edu-outcomes in their states here.)

There’s been more chatter about K-12 among the nearly dozen Republican candidates, but much of it has been about the Common Core State Standards, which former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush has taken a lot of abuse for supporting. (So far, the other common core fan in the field, Ohio Gov. John Kasich, hasn’t been subjected to the same ribbing from his rivals.)

And GOP contenders have talked about teachers’ unions, with Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin pledging to rein them in big time, and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie proclaiming he’d like to give them a big punch in the face. Other contenders, including Sens. Marco Rubio, Raul Paul, and Ted Cruz, have said they’d like to slim down, or get rid of the U.S. Department of Education. (No point-by-point plans on K-12 from anyone running for the GOP nod yet, though.)

So what’s going on with the Democrats? I asked some experts:

Patrick McGuinn, a professor of political science at Drew University, in Madison, N.J., who has studied K-12 education and elections, gave me three possibilities. One, Democrats are staying mum in part because Republicans are talking about the issue but in an “ideologically extreme way to appeal to the Tea Party wing of the GOP that dominate[s] the primaries.” The GOP contenders are creating “self-inflicted wounds” that will come back to haunt the eventual nominee, according to McGuinn. “No Need for the Dems to say much when the Repubs are making themselves look bad all by themselves!” McGuinn wrote in an email.

Two, he said, K-12 has been a “tricky” issue for Democratic presidential candidates because of the divide between the “reform” wing of the party and teachers’ unions on issues like ending teacher tenure and expanding charter schools. It’s easier to focus on the areas where most primary voters are in agreeement, like ending student loan debt, McGuinn wrote.

Finally, this past year has seen a big backlash around the federal role in education and Obama’s K-12 agenda, particularly when it comes to the common core and standardized testing. “I don’t think any of the Dem candidates want to be too closely associated with all that,” McGuinn wrote.

And here’s some speculation from Paul Manna, a professor at the College of William and Mary in Virginia, who has also written extensively about education and politics. Essentially, he’s guessing there may not be enough disagreement between the parties to draw a good contrast:

I would suspect that Democrats see higher education and pre-K as areas where there are more sharp differences between themselves and Republicans. So it is easier to set up one's self as an alternative to the GOP by focusing on those areas. In the K-12 arena, although Democrats and Republicans are at odds over vouchers—Democrats, especially in national politics basically always oppose them, while Republicans support them—there are many more K-12 policy areas where their preferences seem to overlap. Things such as test-based accountability for schools and teachers, charter schools, and others, are areas where there is less daylight between the typical Democratic and Republican positions.

Another possibility: It’s early. After all Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., the Republican nominee in 2008, didn’t come out with his edu-plan until July of that year, just three and a half months before the election.

What do you think? Comments section is open! (And hat-tip to the Education Writers Association’s Emily Richmond for asking me why, exactly, we have heard so little on K-12 when she interviewed me for EWA radio.)

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