••• Education •••

Presidential politics and public education – where the candidates stand

As the presidential season plods along, among the round-the-clock reportage of accusations and insults, occasionally an actual issue question pops up. At some point, each of the five candidates still standing (as of this writing) has been asked “What are you going to do about education?” That seems a reasonable inquiry given the increased intrusion by the federal government, even into matters that are state and local issues such as education.  But the reality is the next president will probably have much less influence over public education than his or her two previous predecessors (Yay!)

Why? It’s the culmination of what has transpired over the last two presidential administrations. It started with President Bush’s landmark education initiative, which became infamously known as No Child Left Behind. Like it or hate it, NCLB was a driving force, causing schools across the country to focus a disproportionate share of time on federally required assessments with an unrealistic ultimate goal. It was to be reauthorized (and presumable modified) at some point during Bush’s second term, but it fell victim to Washington gridlock, and nothing during Obama’s tenure freed Washington, or the NCLB rewrite from that trend.

Since Congress refused to act to address the shortcomings of NCLB, Education Secretary Arne Duncan became the de facto education czar. This point is critical because the failure of Congress and the subsequent usurpation of power by the executive branch is what brought us…Common Core. (Isn’t federal meddling wonderful?) Common Core was thrust upon the country first by carrot (remember Race to the Top?) then by stick (NCLB waivers).

Fortunately, that episode is in our collective rear-view mirrors. Duncan cashed in after leaving the Department of Education, and NCLB is gone as well. It has been replaced by the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), which was passed late in 2015 and supposedly will reduce the federal presence in K-12 education.

The point of all this is that the new law will allow Washington to catch its collective breath when it comes to education policy, hopefully keeping it from being a priority for the next president.

But the questions persist, and regardless of the new law there is still a federal presence in education. Common Core standards still dominate the landscape and testing is still mandatory. So what have the five remaining candidates been saying about K-12 education and what might he or she do when occupying the Oval Office?

Bernie Sanders. If you’ve at all been “feeling the Bern,” you know Sanders has focused on higher education – as in giving it away for “free.” Good luck with that.  On his website, BernieSanders.com, the Vermont Senator describes and addresses 25 different issues. K-12 education isn’t one of them. I’ll give him credit for that. But a quick search of Bernie’s positions reveals that he appears to be in favor of universal pre-K, supports Common Core but is opposed to standardized testing, and is fuzzy when it comes to school choice.

Hillary Clinton. As opposed to her Democrat counterpart, Hillary does list K-12 education as an issue priority on her campaign website. However, she is short on specifics, choosing instead to have a “God, country and apple pie” approach that no one could dispute. However, during the campaign she has said a few specifics that get one’s attention. In Michigan, she said she would send in “education SWAT teams” to help struggling schools (a curious choice of words, given the sensitivity to violence in schools these days). She has recently gone on record as wanting to provide federal money to help “restore crumbling schools” across the country. She is like Sanders in her support for universal pre-K and Common Core, but she seems to be a stronger advocate of charter schools.

Donald Trump. On Trump’s website, he declares “education will not come from Washington.” Seemingly always short on issue specifics, the only education issue he mentions directly is Common Core, which he says he will eliminate. Trump also pledges to make education more local.

Ted Cruz. The Texas Senator has the most detailed plan for K-12 education, vowing to eliminate the U.S. Department of Education (as did Ronald Reagan). Like Trump, Cruz is vehemently opposed to Common Core. During a Republican presidential debate Cruz said: “Common Core is a disaster. And if I am elected president, in the first days as president, I will direct the Department of Education that Common Core ends that day.” That statement is puzzling coming from a vigilant constitutionalist. Regardless of the merits of Common Core or how it came to be (see carrots and sticks above), over 40 states still have them, and the decision to adopt those standards was one made at state and local levels. It’s hard to imagine a president could unilaterally repeal those decisions. How could President Cruz say, for example: “Hey, New York, I’ve just outlawed your education standards.”?

John Kasich. As sitting governor of Ohio, Kasich is the only one of the five candidates who is directly involved with K-12 education. Also, being so far behind his two Republican rivals, his policy stances don’t get much attention. Kasich has supported Common Core in the past, but now says he opposes federal intervention, stating that in Ohio “we want higher standards for our children and those standards are set and the curriculum is set by local school boards.” He states on his website that he wants to keep education local.  And, as the only candidate remaining who is (or ever was) a governor, he is the only one who speaks on education issues as a matter of experience.

Obviously Common Core is the “hot button” K-12 education issue this presidential cycle, the single thread among all candidates in both parties. Frankly, it’s becoming much more of a symbolic than real issue. Although 43 states currently have either adopted Common Core verbatim or adopted a state version (like the Kansas KCCRS), the number of states using the two Common Core-based testing services, Smarter Balanced or PARCC has fallen to 21. (Kansas is not one of the 21.) This trend combined with the new federal law which specifically eliminates any requirement that states adopt or continue Common Core could mark the beginning of the end of its standards stranglehold across the nation. Putting this all together, it’s hard to imagine any new president having an impact on the future of Common Core. Let’s hope the same is true for the rest of public education.