College & Workforce Readiness

K-12 a Minor Topic in First Democratic Debate

By Alyson Klein — October 15, 2015 5 min read
Democratic presidential candidates from left, former Virginia Sen. Jim Webb, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., Hillary Rodham Clinton, former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley, and former Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee take the stage before the CNN Democratic presidential debate on Oct. 13 in Las Vegas.
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K-12 education policy has been fighting for airtime in a Democratic presidential primary that’s seen much more attention on the bookends of the education spectrum—early-childhood and higher education.

The candidates’ first debate in Las Vegas this week was no exception. While there were plenty of quick shoutouts to education, anyone hoping for a meaty discussion of the big issues facing K-12 schools—testing, teacher tenure, and turnarounds—was out of luck.

That may be unsurprising, given what the candidates themselves have focused on so far. Hillary Clinton, the former secretary of state and front-runner for the Democratic nomination, has released a comprehensive plan for universal prekindergarten, plus a college-access proposal.

Her next closest rival, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, also has a detailed plan for “debt-free” college. And so does former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley. But so far, none of the candidates has put forth a comprehensive proposal on K-12.

One possible reason: There’s not much upside for any of the candidates in talking about K-12 policy these days, said Jeffrey Henig, a professor at Teachers College, Columbia University, who focuses on education and politics.

Issues like the Common Core State Standards, charter schools, and testing can divide teachers’ unions—and some parents—from the so-called “reform” wing of the party, he said in an email.

“I don’t think any of the current Democratic candidates benefits from trying to exploit this division within the party, ... and the risks of doing so are high,” Henig said.

But most Democrats can get behind more resources for early education and college access, he added.

While those issues have the potential to spark divisive debates down the road, right now, they have the “mom and apple pie” appeal that K-12 used to have,” Henig said.

Expanding prekindergarten, for example, appeals to middle-class families, including those where both parents work. College affordability is popular with those voters, too. And career training is close to the hearts of working-class and immigrant voters, as well as the business community, Henig said.

In contrast to their Democratic rivals, Republican presidential candidates have been talking quite a bit about K-12 this election season—but generally in a way that’s designed to appeal to their base, according to Patrick McGuinn, an associate professor of political science and education at Drew University in New Jersey.

Red-meat proposals like getting rid of the U.S. Department of Education and abolishing the common-core standards might win favor with conservative primary voters, he said. But those positions could ultimately hurt the eventual GOP nominee in the general election, he added.

Republicans “are creating a lot of self-inflicted wounds that will come back to haunt whoever the ultimate nominee is in the general election among more moderate voters,” McGuinn wrote in an email. “No need for the Democrats to say much when the Republicans are making themselves look bad all by themselves!”

College Visions

When it comes to increasing college access, Sanders and Clinton take different tacks—and they got a chance to showcase their contrasting visions during the Oct. 13 debate, which aired on CNN.

About The Candidates

The former Rhode Island governor oversaw the rollout of the state’s $75 million federal Race to the Top grant and a $50 million grant specifically for early-learning programs.

The former secretary of state has made early-childhood education and college access cornerstones of her education agenda.

The U.S. senator from Vermont has been one of the most outspoken critics from the left of the Obama administration’s competitive grants, particularly Race to the Top.

In 2010, the National Education Association gave the then-Maryland governor an award for increasing spending on K-12 schools.

The former U.S. senator from Virginia has focused some attention in the past on college affordability, and has expressed strong views on affirmative action.

Sanders’ plan would allow for all students to attend public universities for free.

“This is the year 2015. A college degree today is the equivalent of what a high school degree was 50 years ago. And what we said 50 years ago and a hundred years ago is that every kid in this country should be able to get a high school education regardless of the income of their family. I think we have to say that is true for everybody going to college,” Sanders said.

But Clinton has criticized that proposal as too broad; it would allow billionaire and Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump’s children to get a free ride to higher education, she has said.

Clinton touted her own college-access prescription, which would call for lowering interest rates for graduates, enticing states to hold down college costs, and calling for more transparency when it comes to college-graduation rates.

The plan “will save thousands of dollars for people who are now struggling under this cumbersome, burdensome college debt. As a young student in Nevada said to me, the hardest thing about going to college should not be paying for it,” Clinton said.

On another higher education issue, Clinton said she would encourage states to offer in-state college tuition to undocumented immigrant students who came to the United States as children, youths known as “dreamers.”

And O’Malley said under his leadership, his state had succeeded in passing legislation to extend in-state tuition to those students.

Education Achievements

The candidates also spent plenty of time extolling their education records, even though none of the debate’s questions centered on K-12.

Clinton talked up her early work with the Children’s Defense Fund, an advocacy organization, where she helped do on-the-ground research into conditions for students in special education that later helped inform the development of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

She also cited her championing of legislation for foster children during her time in the Senate, and her role in helping to create the Children’s Health Insurance Program, which offers coverage for low-income families. Later, she briefly linked early-childhood education to equal opportunity and crime prevention.

Meanwhile, Sanders said early on that the nation should be putting money into education, not prisons.

“We need major, major reforms in our criminal-justice system,” he said. “We need education and jobs rather than jail cells.”

For his part, O’Malley touted his leadership in Maryland in “making our public schools the best in America.”

It’s true that the state was at the top of Education Week’s Quality Counts rankings for five years running, from 2009 to 2013. But the EPE Research Center, which grades the states for that report, changed its methodology recently. Under the new system, Maryland comes in third. What’s more, voters should view any governor’s claims about their role in bolstering student outcomes with a skeptical eye, researchers say.

On the affirmative action issue, former U.S. Sen. Jim Webb of Virginia said he’s not in favor of considering race alone in such policies. That leaves a lot of poor whites behind, he said. Plus, he talked up legislation he worked on with Sanders to bolster educational opportunities for veterans.

For his part, former Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee listed “funding education” as a key challenge facing the country.

A version of this article appeared in the October 21, 2015 edition of Education Week as K-12 Gets Little Attention in First Democratic Presidential Debate


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