Blog: The Educated Reporter

K-12 Education Seen as Side Issue in White House Race

Source: Flickr/ via Gage Skidmore (CC BY-SA 2.0)

K-12 education hasn’t been a top theme this presidential campaign cycle, but reporters could be more aggressive in mining information from the candidates on the topic, analysts said at a national forum this week.

Historically, education hasn’t played prominently on the campaign trail, said Martin West, an associate professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. The 2016 presidential election is no exception – although this race for the White House has also proven wildly unpredictable.

“As a result, the candidates haven’t been forced to say much about where they are, and I’d say that’s particularly the case with Donald Trump,” West said during the Education Writers Association’s national seminar in Boston. “Trump in particular will be a wild card,” West said of the Republican candidate during the EWA panel on the presidential election and the stakes for K-12 education.

The panel came a day before Trump won Indiana’s Republican primary. With both Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas and Gov. John Kasich now out of the race, Trump is widely seen as the presumptive GOP nominee.

Frederick Hess, the director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, agreed that K-12 education has been largely ignored in the campaign. Republicans haven’t said much, aside from bashing the Common Core state standards and the U.S. Department of Education, he said at the May 2 session, moderated by Education Week reporter Andrew Ujifusa.

Kimberly Hefling, a senior education reporter at Politico, asked the panelists how reporters should approach candidates and campaigns who aren’t answering questions on education.

Reporters should press the candidates harder and “make a bigger deal about it” when they’re still not answering questions, said American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten.

She also said that’s what’s out there about the candidates – including two recent speeches on education delivered by former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton – hasn’t gotten adequate coverage. The AFT last year endorsed Clinton in her bid for the Democratic nomination.

Weingarten said Clinton’s remarks in March, delivered at Hillside High School in Durham, North Carolina, barely received media attention.

Substance or Drama?

Andrew Rotherham, the cofounder of Bellwether Education Partners, agreed, saying the candidates have put out a number of policy papers that haven’t received adequate scrutiny or attention.

“The media always says that they want the candidates to talk about the issues,” said Rotherham, who was an education adviser to President Bill Clinton. “Everyone says they want substance, but they really want drama.”

Reporters can find that substance in the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, panelists said, and how states and a new presidential administration work to implement the new education law. The bipartisan measure, which replaces the No Child Left Behind Act, was signed by President Obama late last year.

“If I were a reporter, there’s 50 books waiting to be written about how each state handles this,” Rotherham said.

There’s an opportunity for states to redefine and rethink how they hold schools accountable for whether students are learning and making progress, Weingarten said. States have a chance to distance themselves from the approach to accountability under the Obama administration, which focused too heavily on test scores and graduation rates, she said.

Kyle Stokes, a K-12 reporter for Southern California Public Radio, asked the panelists about federal policymaking under the law and how a new administration might put its own twist on the regulations.

That’s definitely something to watch, the panelists agreed. Weingarten of the AFT pointed to a gulf that emerged between U.S. Education Secretary John B. King Jr. and Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, who chairs the Senate education committee during negotiated rulemaking over the last couple months. That process brought together a committee of teachers, advocates, and state and district leaders to hash out regulatory language under the law.

Sen. Alexander lashed out at the Obama administration for what he saw as efforts to exert too heavy of a hand, particularly when it comes to funding under the Title I program for disadvantaged students.

Weingarten said she expects to see more of that conflict as the Obama administration, which wants to ensure that states are maintaining the law’s civil rights legacy, moves to implement ESSA.

One key development to watch, said Rotherham, is how the next president’s education secretary operates under the new law, which many education policy-watchers and members of Congress see as a return to state and local decision-making.

“The law sounds great when you’re not in the executive branch,” he said. It will be interesting to see where a new secretary tries to waive parts of the law or come down hard on states, he said.

If Clinton wins, will she tap Weingarten for the job?

“Let’s stop the spread of that rumor,” said the union president. “I’m not interested!”