Early Childhood

Hillary Clinton’s K-12 Record Could Be Campaign Fodder

By Alyson Klein — March 03, 2015 10 min read
2008: Standing with graduating student Aleatha Williams, right, then-Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., center, watches the graduating class of Pelham Preparatory Academy in New York City march to their seats during their commencement ceremony.
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As the first lady of Arkansas back in the 1980s, Hillary Rodham Clinton spearheaded an effort to bring rigorous public school courses to all corners of that state. As a U.S. senator from New York, she pushed for prekindergarten expansion nationally, before the issue caught political fire. And, as a presidential candidate in 2008, she clashed with her chief rival, then-Sen. Barack Obama, on tying teacher pay partly to students’ test scores.

Ms. Clinton hasn’t yet declared her candidacy for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2016, much less provided a point-by-point plan on how she might look to shape education policy as president. But almost a year before the first primary, she is widely seen as the presumptive favorite for her party’s nomination should she choose to run, even as potential alternatives such as Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, former Virginia Sen. Jim Webb, and former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley stand in the wings.

That dominance contrasts with a wide-open prospective Republican field that includes at least one prominent likely contender, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who is closely identified with education issues.

Although Ms. Clinton’s most recent public office, U.S. secretary of state, kept her away from the domestic-policy fray, her outsize stature in the political landscape makes her record on education as on other issues, such as health, the inevitable focus of early attention—and speculation.

Education Policy Résumé

From her days as first lady of Arkansas—and in the White House—to her tenure as a U.S. senator and as Secretary of State, Hillary Rodham Clinton has a long record on education and children’s issues that could offer clues to what she might emphasize should she decide to run for president in 2016.

Early-Childhood Education

  • As first lady of Arkansas in the 1980s, spearheaded an effort to bring an Israeli program known as the Home Instruction for Parents of Preschool Youth to the state. The American version of the HIPPY program, still headquartered in Arkansas, now has a national presence.
  • As first lady of the United States in the early 1990s, helped champion the creation of Early Head Start, which expanded the early-childhood education program for low-income families to children from birth to age 3.
  • As a presidential candidate in 2008 campaign, pitched a $10 billion-a-year proposal to help states expand their early-childhood offerings, with the goal of giving all 4-year-olds access to prekindergarten programs.
  • As a U.S. senator from New York in 2007, introduced the “Ready to Learn Act,” which would have added competitive grants for prekindergarten and other early-childhood programs to the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which was up for renewal that year.
  • Also introduced legislation to create a demonstration program that would offer home-visiting services to improve health and educational outcomes for low-income families.

No Child Left Behind Act

  • Voted in favor of the No Child Left Behind Act as a U.S. senator in 2001.
  • Introduced a bill in 2007 to increase access to free tutoring services required for students from low-performing schools and to improve the quality of tutoring providers.
  • As a presidential candidate in 2008, expressed qualms about the No Child Left Behind Act and wanted to see more emphasis on measuring student growth. Favored incorporating measures beyond testing into state accountability systems, including Advanced Placement scores, graduation rates, and the results of formative assessments.

Academic Standards

  • As first lady of Arkansas in 1983, chaired a committee charged with recommending new standards for the state’s schools. The committee ultimately decided to raise graduation standards and broaden course offerings.
  • As a U.S. senator in 2007, introduced legislation to create a voluntary national curriculum and standards for math and science education, as well as a bill to develop demonstration programs aimed at preparing rural students for college and the workforce.


  • As first lady of Arkansas, helped push for a basic skills test for educators. The policy earned her and Gov. Bill Clinton the ire of the Arkansas Education Association.
  • As a U.S. senator, introduced bills to improve principal recruitment and development, including in struggling schools, and to authorize federal appropriations for the Teach For America program.
  • As a presidential candidate in 2008, called for a significant new investment in teacher professional development, but clashed with her chief rival for the Democratic nomination, then-Sen. Barack Obama, on whether it made sense to offer individual bonuses to teachers based in part on student test scores. Instead, Ms. Clinton called for extra pay for entire schools that are able to improve student outcomes.
  • As a presidential candidate, was endorsed by the American Federation of Teachers. (The National Education Association chose not to endorse either Ms. Clinton her rival Mr. Obama.)

Other Areas of Interest

  • As first lady of Arkansas, served on the state’s Rural Health Advisory Committee and on the board of Arkansas Children’s Hospital, and helped found Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families, a group that lobbied for increased funding of child-welfare programs.
  • As a U.S. senator, introduced bills aimed at improving outcomes for children in foster care, promoting community service opportunities for high school students, boosting mentoring programs for at-risk children, combating eating disorders in adolescents, and improving the energy efficiency of school facilities, among other topics related to children and schools.

SOURCES: Living History by Hillary Rodham Clinton, Hillary for President 2008, U.S. Congress, Education Week

Ms. Clinton’s history of involvement in children’s issues—going back to her work in the 1970s for an anti-poverty organization that later became the Children’s Defense Fund—offers clues to where she might want to go on academic standards, teacher quality, and early learning, among other matters, and the approach she’d take to get there.

“She doesn’t care about education just because everyone is supposed to care about education,” said Mildred Otero, a former aide to Ms. Clinton when she was a senator and a presidential candidate. “Children’s issues have really just been her issues for a really long time, before she ever entered public life.”

When it comes to crafting policy, Ms. Clinton wants to know what the latest research is, and what people who have a stake in a particular issue think, Ms. Otero added.

“She has been around long enough and trying to do major change long enough to understand that you’re never going to impose policy on people. You need them to get there with you.”

But Chester E. Finn Jr., who served in the U.S. Department of Education under President Ronald Reagan and has been closely watching federal policy for decades, said he doesn’t think of Ms. Clinton as a “significant figure” on education issues. From what he’s seen, he said in an email, she has oscillated “between gutsy change agent and defender of the conventional wisdom.”

“I’ve no idea which version would prevail were she president, and I’ll bet she doesn’t either,” said Mr. Finn, who is now a distinguished fellow at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a Washington think tank.

Youngest Learners

Ms. Clinton’s office declined a request for an interview for this article. But ask anyone who has ever worked with her what piece of precollegiate policy is closest to her heart, and they’ll answer: early-childhood education.

It’s an area that many politicians, including President Obama, have embraced in recent years.

One of Ms. Clinton’s earliest experiences with policy work came in researching health and educational conditions for the children of migrant workers as a summer employee for what became the Children’s Defense Fund.

In the 1980s, when future President Bill Clinton was governor of Arkansas, Ms. Clinton was a driving force in bringing the Home Instruction Program for Parents of Preschool Youngsters to the state. Started in Israel, HIPPY offers home-visiting services to low-income parents.

Later, in the White House, Ms. Clinton helped push for the creation of Early Head Start, which expanded the preschool program for disadvantaged youngsters to children from birth to age 3. More recently, Ms. Clinton helped launch “Too Small to Fail,” an initiative aimed at promoting research into early brain development and other issues key to children in the birth-to-age 5 range.

In 2007, then-Sen. Clinton sought to add a new program to the Elementary and Secondary Education Act that would have offered competitive grants to states to expand and beef up the quality of their early-childhood-education programs.

She pitched a similar proposal, with a $10 billion annual price tag, as a 2008 contender for the Democratic presidential nomination—an idea that the eventual nominee, Mr. Obama, also picked up on. President Obama has since made expanding early-childhood education a centerpiece of his second-term agenda.

But if Ms. Clinton, as a 2016 candidate, were to float a similar program, she’d likely get hit with big questions about its cost, said Frederick M. Hess, the director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, in Washington.

1982: Bill and Hillary Clinton celebrate Mr. Clinton's victory in the Democratic gubernatorial runoff in Arkansas. As first lady of Arkansas, Ms. Clinton was deeply involved in efforts to bolster the rigor of academic offerings in that state's public school system.

“She’s not somebody who has ever been bothered by budget constraints,” contended Mr. Hess, who writes an opinion blog for the Education Week website. “If you’re not a fiscal hawk, and especially if you’re not responsible for implementing these programs, it’s easy to be in favor of more funding for early childhood.”

Merit-Pay Clash

During the 2008 presidential-primary season, teacher quality was the one corner of K-12 policy in which there was a clear divide between Ms. Clinton and Mr. Obama.

Unlike her rival, Ms. Clinton steered clear of pushing for merit pay for individual teachers, which she viewed as “demeaning and discouraging.”

Instead, she championed bonuses for entire staffs of schools that boasted significant gains in student achievement. Still, during a Democratic candidates’ debate in Las Vegas in 2007, she said it was important to “weed out” poor educators—even in good schools.

By contrast, Mr. Obama spoke at the National Education Association annual convention earlier that year and suggested he would be open to basing teacher pay in part on student achievement. The policy later became a hallmark of his administration’s Race to the Top initiative. And the president’s waivers of parts of the No Child Left Behind Act, the current version of the ESEA, required states to craft evaluation systems that relied in significant part on student outcomes.

In the end, Ms. Clinton’s caution on a federal footprint in tying teacher pay to student test scores may prove to have been prescient: the Obama administration’s policy has helped fuel a backlash against high-stakes testing in general.

“She saw it then,” Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, a 1.6 million-member union, said in an interview. “What’s really interesting is how many people on all sides of the political spectrum are cautioning against the federal role in teacher evaluation” now.

But Mr. Hess, who watched the 2008 campaign closely, doesn’t think Ms. Clinton necessarily had foresight on where the policy would go. “She was trying to plant herself as the more conventional liberal,” he said.

Teacher Focus

The AFT endorsed Ms. Clinton in 2008, while the 3 million-member National Education Association opted not to pick a favorite during the primary season.

It’s far too soon to say whether the AFT would make the same endorsement this time around, Ms. Weingarten said—the union’s vetting process is extensive, and 2016 contenders are only beginning to emerge. But Ms. Clinton’s candidacy fired up AFT members in 2008, she said.

The AFT has had a good working relationship with both Clintons, dating back to when the late Albert Shanker was at the helm of the union, Ms. Weingarten said. And those ties endure: Bill Clinton’s current chief of staff, Tina Flournoy, was a top assistant to Ms. Weingarten at the AFT.

“There are many, many overlapping issues [of interest], and many, many overlapping values,” Ms. Weingarten said. “It doesn’t mean we agree on everything.”

To be sure, as a senator, Ms. Clinton worked with Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., now the chairman of the Senate education committee, on legislation to provide federal assistance to the Teach For America program, which both teachers’ unions are skeptical of.

1993: As first lady of the United States, Hillary Rodham Clinton meets with students participating in a youth education program at Charles R. Drew University of Medicine and Science in Los Angeles.

And in a 2007 speech to the New York State United Teachers’ annual convention in Washington, Ms. Clinton affirmed her support for charter schools, to audible jeers.

More generally, teacher and principal development was a special focus of Ms. Clinton’s legislative agenda as a senator and her platform as presidential candidate, said Catherine Brown, a former aide to Ms. Clinton in the Senate and vice president of education policy at the Center for American Progress.

When Congress was at work in crafting the NCLB law in 2001, Ms. Clinton promoted “Transition to Teaching,” a grant program that sought to bolster alternative pathways into the profession. Later, she introduced bills on such matters as recruiting and training principals for high-need schools and creating a national teacher corps.

Ms. Clinton had a policy track record on teacher quality and academic standards and assessments even before she came to Washington.

In the 1980s, Bill Clinton was one of a pack of governors who took to heart the landmark 1983 report A Nation at Risk. He worked to increase the academic rigor in Arkansas’ education system, and Ms. Clinton was a key partner in that work. She led a statewide effort in Arkansas to bolster course offerings.

At the time, 187 of the state’s roughly 365 districts didn’t offer chemistry, and 163 offered no foreign language, said Don Ernst, who served as an adviser to the governor. Ms. Clinton traversed the state listening to recommendations and doing extensive outreach, he said. And later, she championed the proposals in the state legislature.

“I think a lot of people were thinking, ‘What does she know?’ ” Mr. Ernst said. But the governor and Ms. Clinton “spent a lot of time listening and communicating, and developed momentum,” he said. “It was actually pretty amazing.”

And Ms. Clinton retained a belief in rigor: In the Senate, she introduced a measure in 2007 to create voluntary national standards in math and science, although the proposal never made it over the legislative finish line.

NCLB Views

In her first year as a senator, in 2001, Ms. Clinton, along with nearly everyone else in Congress, voted in favor of the No Child Left Behind Act, which was among President George W. Bush’s signature domestic-policy achievements.

But she raised a key question backstage: What would happen under the law’s accountability system to school districts like Scarsdale, N.Y., where nearly all the students were already proficient? What kind of sanctions might they face for not meeting the law’s achievement goals?

At the time, an aide to a Democratic member of the conference committee that was putting the finishing touches on the bill, was a bit surprised—after all, the NCLB law was all about trying to improve outcomes for poor and minority students. Why was Sen. Clinton, who also represented poor and diverse communities like New York City’s South Bronx, asking about an affluent suburb?

But in retrospect, the former aide says, the exchange showed Ms. Clinton’s political acumen—much of the pushback to the NCLB law and its system of tests and sanctions has stemmed from wealthy suburban communities like Scarsdale.

On the presidential-campaign trail in 2007, Ms. Clinton was critical of the Bush administration’s implementation of the law.

“We can all agree that we do need measures,” she said in her New York State United Teachers speech. “We do need accountability. But not the kind of accountability that the NCLB law has imposed on people. ... It’s time we had a president who cares more about learning than about memorizing.”

At the time, the idea of paring back federally mandated tests wasn’t on the table in Washington in any serious way, but it’s become a hot issue in the current debate over rewriting the No Child Left Behind version of the ESEA. It’s an open question where Ms. Clinton stands on that issue.

Political Outlook

It’s unclear whether the next president will get to shape a reauthorization of the ESEA. Congress is now at work on revising the law, which is long overdue for renewal.

It might be a good thing for Ms. Clinton, as a prospective candidate, if the bill is over the finish line by the time she hits the campaign trail, said Andrew J. Rotherham, who served in the White House during President Bill Clinton’s tenure and is a co-founder of Bellwether Education Partners, a consulting organization in Washington. Should she win the Democratic nomination, her eventual GOP opponent would be almost sure to attack her on the federal role in education, he noted.

“It’s definitely more to her to advantage to have this done,” Mr. Rotherham said. “For some Republicans who want to run hard against Washington having [a still-pending ESEA bill] out there gives them one more target.”

Librarian Holly Peele and Library Intern Maya Riser-Kositsky contributed to this article.
A version of this article appeared in the March 04, 2015 edition of Education Week as Tracing Hillary Clinton’s K-12 Record


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