CJ Mayer: Prioritize Education Policy

Sunday, October 23, 2016 - 5:39pm

When it comes to the future of our country, few issues are as critical as our education system. An educated population is fundamental for everything, from our economy to our democracy. Yet, education policy has been a second-tier issue in this year’s presidential campaign, and was not addressed at any of the three debates. Ask the general public, and an unfortunately large number of people won’t know where either candidate stands on the issue. Clinton’s policies are more fleshed out and her track record is more impressive, but in this case, what she has proposed to do once in office is ambiguous. While education policy is unlikely to change votes at this point, it’s time for our candidates to take a stand on education. One of them will be president, and they must be held accountable when it comes to the direction of our education system.

Let’s start by breaking down higher education plans. Bernie Sanders made student debt a big issue, and for the most part, Hillary Clinton took his position. She is in favor of “debt-free” public colleges with free tuition for any family making less than $125,000 per year. At half a trillion dollars, this plan will be paid for, she claims, by raising taxes on the richest Americans. She also believes students should spend about 10 hours per week working in order to help pay for their tuition. As a senator, Clinton introduced legislation to increase Pell Grant funding. While it is a good idea, it is unclear how she will pay for it, and that is where her policy must get more specific. In fact, Trump’s team has jumped on this and said her plan is impossible. Trump’s policy adviser, Sam Clovis, says that government itself should not be involved in providing loans to students and that it should be banks doing so; this would be a disaster. Besides this point, contrasted with Clinton’s more specific plan, Trump has said very little. Trump’s policy positions get even more confusing when we go to another important topic in education.

Charter schools are a very contentious issue. Clinton has changed her opinion on charter schools throughout the years. As first lady in 1999 she told the National Education Association to “stand behind the charter school public school movement.” In 2008, as a candidate for president, she had a more qualified support of charter schools, as she was in favor Public School Choice programs and experimenting with different options, but said charter schools can’t be allowed to drain resources from public schools. While she has been in favor of charter schools in the past, today she seems much more reserved. Last November, she said charter schools do not help those who need them the most, and by investing more in the public education system, we can create better public schools from which parents can choose. Call it evolving over decades in public service or call it appeasing the two biggest teacher unions — both of which have endorsed her — but one thing is for sure: Clinton has changed her rhetoric on school choice. Where she would stand is unclear and dependent on her selection of secretary of education.

On the flipside, aligning with most conservative policymakers, Donald Trump has been steadily in favor of more school choice. He believes the education system needs more competition: “If you forced schools to get better or close because parents didn’t want to enroll their kids there, they would get better.” To increase enrollment at charter schools, he would move $20 billion in existing federal dollars to promote a voucher program that would enable kids in poverty to attend charter schools. This, according to many Democrats, would take funds away from current public schools and would deprive the schools of much-needed resources. Trump is staunchly pro-charter school and pro-voucher programs. And while it seems like Clinton is in favor of a qualified and experimental charter school program, she is vehemently against the voucher program, as she thinks it will take funds away from public schools that need it most.

A third issue that both candidates could be clearer on is pre-kindergarten education. Clinton wants to make pre-K universal and double the Head Start program, which helps low-income students in their early years in school. The plan would likely cost $75 billion. If there’s one primary issue for Clinton, it’s here. She started in law school, where she worked for the Children’s Defense Fund and continued as first lady of Arkansas, where she started home visiting for new mothers in poverty. She made a huge difference as first lady of the United States, where she pushed for the 1997 State Child Health Insurance Program and the Early Head Start program, which help more than 8 million children. Additionally, her first book, “It Takes A Village,” concerns early childhood investment. As The Atlantic puts it: “For the first time in U.S. history, Americans may be about to elect a president whose signature issue is early childhood.” On the contrary, it seems that Trump is severely lacking in a history of education initiatives. In fact, an article in U.S. News and World Report reported, “As for Donald Trump, his primary track record on early childhood education seems to be the number of times other people have compared him to a preschooler.”

Our education system determines our country’s future, and it’s been ignored. While neither candidate has talked enough about education to hammer down all their plans, we can look at history for an idea of where the two candidates stand. Clinton has spent her entire life advocating for childhood education, while Trump has spent the entire campaign defending his only experience in education: Trump University. We have outlines of plans, but when it comes to how they will change our education system, we have very few specifics. This is not OK; we must prioritize education policy and the discussion of such policy if we want to make any improvements.

CJ Mayer can be reached at mayercj@umich.edu.