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Teaching Profession

Four Ways Hillary Clinton Might Differ From Obama on K-12 Policy

By Andrew Ujifusa — November 16, 2015 5 min read
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Having picked up the endorsement of the American Federation of Teachers in the Democratic primary earlier this year, Hillary Clinton participated in a roundtable organized by the union on Nov. 9. During the discussion with union President Randi Weingarten and several AFT members, Clinton expanded on her views on charter schools, which have been making waves over the past week, as well as her commitment to increased Title I funding.

The roundtable, which the AFT released excerpts from, also offered an opportunity for Clinton to raise issues where she might depart from President Barack Obama’s policies, as well as such issues that didn’t come up (at least directly) in her discussions with teachers. Let’s look at four of those, and where Weingarten sees perhaps the biggest contrast.

She’s not as outspoken a charter supporter: As we noted earlier this month, Clinton’s charter rhetoric doesn’t match the president’s. Whereas U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan made expanding opportunities for charters one of his top early priorities, Clinton said in an interview with Roland Martin of TV One that most charters don’t serve the hardest student populations. That accusation ruffled some feathers—remember, for the most part in her public career, Clinton has been a supporter of charter schools.

In her comments at the AFT roundtable, she didn’t raise that specific criticism again. But she did take a poke at many charter operators who said she sometimes charge ahead without really knowing what they’re doing. “A lot of people show up and they want to do a charter, and they don’t pay attention to the educational research. They have a pet idea. They may be, again, motivated to try to help kids, but they don’t have the experience, and they don’t necessarily know how to do it,” Clinton said.

Ultimately, she said that in addition to relying on sound research, charters should serve as a “supplement, not a substitute” for traditional public schools. But “supplement” can mean many different things. So do Clinton’s recent remarks signal a drier spell for charter schools if she’s elected president? Or is she acknowledging that there are folks who are concerned about charters without really coming over to their side?

She’s getting early help from teachers’ unions: One difference to note isn’t really from the roundtable itself, but its timing: Clinton has picked up the AFT’s endorsement, along with the National Education Association’s official backing, well before President Barack Obama did in the 2008 cycle. In fact, the NEA didn’t endorse anyone in the Democratic primary in 2008, only siding with Obama in the general election. And the AFT backed Clinton in the 2008 primary.

The Clinton endorsements this year was despite a push among some union members to consider an endorsement for Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt. So that’s part of the reason you’re seeing Clinton do this sort of union roundtable relatively early in the presidential cycle, compared to the 2008 cycle. And it probably doesn’t hurt the unions’ chances of having a seat at the big-boy table during a hypothetical Clinton administration.

She is not interested in teacher evaluation through test scores: In making her opposition clear to tying teacher pay and evaluation to test scores, Clinton makes a passing reference to the pending reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act—congressional negotiators have reached a preliminary deal to reauthorize ESEA and official negotiations are set to begin this week.

Her opposition to such policies is not new. Seven years ago, she pushed for a greater variety of measures to be included in accountability systems beyond test scores. And that sort of skepticism is notably different from the kind of teacher evaluation policies the Obama administration has pushed under the Race to the Top competitive grant program and NCLB waivers.

She did acknowledge that if ESEA is reauthorized before she takes office, “my administration will be starting from a different base” and will be able to build on the new law. That might be interpreted as a tacit endorsement of the ESEA deal now under discussion, and indeed, if the bill passes, it would make life easier for Potential President Clinton.

“But then we’ll have to do the hard work, and I would look to the AFT for advice on this,” Clinton said. “OK, what are the tests, because you’ve got to have something? And what should they be, and how often should they be administered, and what should they be used for?”

This lack of interest in test-score-based teacher evaluation, by the way, is the policy area Weingarten highlighted when I asked her where she saw the biggest difference between Clinton and the Obama administration, even though Weingarten was skeptical of the question’s premise.

“What you see though is that [Clinton] has the opportunity to look at what hasn’t worked, and talk about the kind of things that have worked or should work,” Weingarten said in a conference call with reporters on Monday. “It’s not simply a matter of needing fewer and better tests.”

Keep in mind, the preliminary ESEA deal wouldn’t do away with the federal testing requirements for grades 3-8 and high school, but it would give much more power over what those tests are used for in accountability systems. (And just to be clear, NCLB does not require test scores to be factors in teacher pay or evaluations. That’s an ESEA waiver thing.)

Early childhood education, not K-12, may be her first priority out of the gate.

From her push to expand the Head Start program while first lady in the 1990s, to the competitive grant program for early education she proposed in 2007 as a senator from New York state, Clinton has an extensive record in this area. By contrast, the Obama administration made K-12 his first priority, getting many of the president’s K-12 goals across the finish line through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, aka the stimulus.

Given her record and how controversial some of the Obama administration’s K-12 policies have become with both the Democratic base and other voters, there’s a decent chance Clinton would put less emphasis on K-12 issues, particularly if ESEA is reauthorized this Congress, and pivot to the early-childhood arena, where she might also stand a chance of having greater success of the bipartisan kind. (Weingarten briefly mentioned Clinton’s record with early education in Arkansas on the conference call.)

Photo: Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton speaks in San Francisco earlier this year. (AP Photo/Mathew Sumner)

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