Blog: The Educated Reporter

CNN Debate Aside, Ed. Finds Way Into Presidential Race


Education didn’t exactly make a splash in this week’s Republican presidential debate — barely a ripple, actually — but the issue has gained considerable attention in the 2016 contest for the White House, from debates over the Common Core to proposals on higher education access and affordability.

In one exchange during Wednesday’s 11-candidate debate on CNN, apparent front-runner Donald Trump (once again) took a swipe at former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush for supporting the Common Core standards, which Trump called a “disaster.” Bush touted his successful push for school choice through a major tax-credit scholarship program in Florida. And retired surgeon Ben Carson dismissed the idea of “free college” (as well as “free phones, free this and that”) as unrealistic.

For a detailed rundown and analysis of the Sept. 16 debate, check out this Politics K-12 post by Education Week’s Andrew Ujifusa, and Caitlin Emma’s write-up for Politico’s Morning Education.

Although the discussion of education was fleeting at this week’s debate, it got more airtime at the first GOP primary debate on Aug. 6, with a lengthy exchange between Bush and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio on the Common Core (that Bush also used to highlight other education priorities). And the discussion was still more extensive during a Republican forum on Aug. 19 hosted by The Seventy Four that explicitly focused on K-12 issues. Moderator Campbell Brown sat down separate with six candidates for lengthy discussions on the topic.

Motoko Rich covered that event for the New York Times:

Education has been a divisive issue for Republicans, and the differences were on full display as the presidential contenders vied to prove how small a role they would permit the federal government to play in public schools. The candidates performed a balancing act as they tried to embrace high standards for schoolchildren while shying away from the Common Core.

For the Republican candidates this year, popular themes include criticism of the Common Core, teachers’ unions, and the federal role in education. (The exception on Common Core is Jeb Bush and Ohio Gov. John Kasich.) Also, some of the Republican contenders are talking about expanding school choice and the need to make college more affordable. This recent piece from Politico’s Kimberly Hefling takes a look at Colleges in the 2016 Crosshairs.

Hefling writes: “Presidential candidates from both parties are tapping into America’s growing angst over paying for college, placing an unprecedented bright glare on higher education this election. For Democrats, the solution is making college cheaper, or free. Republicans want more innovation and efficiency.”

Among the leading candidates for the Democratic nomination – former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont — the focus has mainly been on expanding access to early childhood education and big-ticket proposals to improve college access. In fact, Sen. Sanders has called for making public colleges and universities tuition-free.

Patrick McGuinn, a political science professor at Drew University who studies education politics, said the “different dynamics” in the Republican and Democratic primaries help to explain the different areas of focus.

“They’re not talking a lot about K-12 education on the Democratic side,” he said. One reason, he argues, is that Republicans “are talking about it, and in an ideologically extreme way. … So Democrats can let them beat each other up.”

Another reason McGuinn sees has to do with the divisive Democratic politics on improving schools.

“K-12 education has become a tricky issue for Democrats,” he said. “There is sort of this division between the teachers’ unions on one hand” and others in the Democratic camp who promote an “education reform” agenda centered on issues such as charter schools, teacher evaluations, and testing. “So, for somebody to take a stand on the Democratic side, you’re going to alienate somebody.”

A recent analysis by Education Week’s Alyson Klein found the presidential contenders’ websites ’skimpy on K-12 policy.’ But that will likely change over time, as more candidates flesh out their agendas. (Klein touched on this point during her recent conversation with EWA public editor Emily Richmond for EWA Radio.)

There’s plenty for education reporters to mine in the track records of the numerous presidential candidates who are current or former governors, given the key role they play in education policy and spending. Also, the campaign comes as the U.S. Senate this summer approved a bipartisan plan to overhaul the main federal law for K-12 education, a.k.a. the No Child Left Behind Act. And that means quite a few presidential contenders cast votes on the bill, approved 81 to 17. Republican Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas, Rand Paul of Kentucky, and Marco Rubio of Florida voted “no” on the reauthorization measure. Sen. Sanders of Vermont voted “aye.” Republican Sen. Lindsay Graham of South Carolina did not vote. These senators also had the chance to vote on–and in some cases sponsor–individual amendments to the federal law that may be revealing.

Meanwhile, it’s not too soon for reporters to start thinking about other important races for 2016, such as for governor, state education chief, mayor, or state and local school board seats. A dozen governor’s seats are on the ballot in 2016 (plus three this November), as well as five state education chiefs. And, if history is any indication, voters are likely to get a chance in at least some states to weigh in directly through education-focused ballot measures.

A good place to start prepping is EWA’s guides for reporters on using polling data in education reporting, campaign finance, and writing about state education policy.