Blog: The Educated Reporter

Higher Ed. Gets Brief Spotlight During Democratic Debate


It took nearly two hours, but education — more specifically college affordability and some differences in how to address it — came to the fore in the first Democratic presidential debate after CNN co-moderator Dana Bush asked both Sen. Bernie Sanders and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton about their plans.

“A college degree today, Dana, is the equivalent of what a high school degree was 50 years ago,” Sanders said, according to a CNN transcript. “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.”

Sanders has been talking up his plan for a free college during the campaign. Clinton also has unveiled a detailed plan for higher ed. affordability, though would not make college universally free for students who attend public universities, like Sanders. It requires some financial “skin in the game” from families, as she explained.

Clinton said she would help Americans who currently have student debt to refinance at a lower rate. And she promised to go further for the next generation of college students.

“As a young student in Nevada said to me, the hardest thing about going to college should not be paying for it,” she said. “So then we have to make it more affordable. … My plan would enable anyone to go to a public college or university tuition free. You could not have to borrow money for tuition. But I do believe — and maybe it’s because I worked when I went through college; I worked when I went through law school — I think it’s important for everybody to have some part of getting this accomplished.”

The increased attention to debt-free college among Democratic candidates was explored in greater depth at the Education Writers Association’s recent higher education seminar last month in Orlando. As EWA’s Mikhail Zinshteyn reported, political experts explained at the event that “debt-free college could be the new flagship issue for the Democratic party, assuming the mantle after affordable healthcare.” You can watch a video of the panel, “Debt-Free College: Adding It Up.”

On Nov. 19, EWA will bring together a diverse mix of experts, analysts, and journalists to explore how education is playing out in the campaign, and what’s ahead. You can also keep up with the latest campaign coverage over at EWA’s Education & the 2016 Election Topics page.

Later on, the moderator asked Clinton where she stands on providing in-state tuition for undocumented immigrants. She said her plan would support states who wish to do so. And former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley chimed in, “We actually did this in my state of Maryland.”

K-12 education got very little attention during the Oct. 13 debate, with virtually no discussion. Indeed, although “school” was mentioned 10 times, half of those references were to “law school.” The CNN moderators never asked about the issue directly, and none of the candidates volunteered any plans.

As Education Week’s Alyson Klein noted in a Politics K-12 blog post:

“There were plenty of quick shout-outs to education during the Democratic presidential candidates’ first debate in Las Vegas. But if you were hoping for a meaty discussion of the big issues facing K-12 — testing, teacher evaluation, fixing low performing schools — you were out of luck,” she noted.

In a previous blog post, Klein sought to explain “Why Aren’t Democratic Presidential Contenders Talking about K-12 Education Policy?”

Meanwhile, Politico’s Morning Education also offered a quick recap of education and the Democratic debate. “When Democratic 2016 candidates went head to head last night during their first presidential debate [], there were brief references to bringing down debt and providing people with good educations — and not much substantive education talk.”

For his part, former Sen. Jim Webb touted “veterans education legislation” he helped to champion.

Sen. Sanders also made a short plug for increased federal spending on education during his opening remarks. “Instead of building more jails and providing more incarceration, maybe – just maybe — we should be putting money into education and jobs for our kids.”

As the campaign proceeds, presumably the candidates will start fleshing out their K-12 agendas. In the meantime, there’s plenty to mine in the track records of the candidates, including during Clinton’s eight years in the U.S. Senate, and Sanders’ 25 years in Congress.

For starters, here’s one point of contrast between Clinton and Sanders: The former senator from New York voted “aye” for the embattled No Child Left Behind Act in 2001, during her first year in the chamber. Sanders, who at the time served in the U.S. House representing Vermont, voted in favor of the initial House bill but ultimately voted “no” on the final House-Senate compromise on the law.

To keep up on the latest campaign coverage, check out EWA’s Education & the 2016 Elections Topics Page.