The recent Democratic Party presidential debate in Las Vegas left many observers scratching their heads. Why did the candidates and their CNN hosts ignore K-12 education?
Is education not important enough to merit discussion as a top national priority in 2016? The public clearly cares about education. US News reports that education is the third ranked search term on Google. When Gallup asked an open-ended question on the most important issues to voters in the 2016 campaign, education came in sixth.
Perhaps the silence is due to the fact that the Democrats have basically adopted the Republican approach to education from the 1990s.
As a university professor, I know plagiarism occasionally comes up in student work. Perhaps the Democrats are not discussing education because they don’t want to be accused of plagiarism by the Republican Party.
If you look at George H.W. Bush’s education platform of 1992, you see that Republicans have been focused on maligning unions, promoting alternative certification for teachers via programs like Teach For America, and pushing an agenda of school choice, assessments, and one-size-fits-all standards.
The Democrats’ current approach to education policy, as practiced by President Barack Obama and his acolytes (including Chicago Mayor Rahm Emmanuel), appears to be the same. Obama did not create “change” in education. He pressed the educational policy status quo that the Republicans engineered in the 1990s. For most of Obama’s presidency, George W. Bush’s NCLB (directly imported from Texas in the 1990s) was left alone and even enhanced via “waivers” and Race to the Top.
Is that why the Democratic Party candidates are so quiet on education? Many in the education community are worried that the current slate of candidates will adopt ideas for education reform eerily similar to the Republicans' ideas of the 1990s—more of the same with a different framing.
There certainly are other ideas that are worth considering. Before the recent Democratic debate, CNN solicited questions from the general public via the hashtag #DemDebate from Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. In response, community groups across the nation coalesced to submit important debate questions about K-12 education on social media.
I personally submitted ten questions to CNN via Instagram, Facebook and Twitter. I had hoped that CNN would ask the candidates to discuss financial and equity accountability for charter schools, a national teacher quality strategy, high-stakes testing and Common Core, the school-to-prison pipeline, and other pressing topics that Democrats have neglected for the past seven years.
The complete absence of questions about K-12 education was clearly negligence on CNN’s part. Surely our nation’s nearly $600 billion K-12 endeavor merits coverage in a presidential debate—at least as much as Bernie Sanders’s thoughts on Hillary Clinton’s emails.
I am hopeful that the Democratic candidates will abandon the 1990s Republican education platform. There are research-supported alternatives, including community-based approaches such as high quality Pre-K supported by municipalities, non-corporate locally-controlled charters, and locally based assessment of students, teachers, and schools.
In the upcoming Iowa debate, CBS and the Des Moines Register should press Democrats on whether they will abandon the education platforms of George W. Bush and Barack Obama, and the candidates should welcome the opportunity to chart a new course by introducing community-based alternatives for education policy. Clearly, education can be a winning issue for Democrats as it is “the top turn out message,” according to recently conducted survey. If Hillary, Bernie, or any of the other candidates want to capture the hearts and minds of the Democratic base and primary voters, they should turn the page on the Republican’s 1990s ideas for education policy.
Julian Vasquez Heilig is the Westcoast Regional Fellow of the Progressive Education Fellows. To see the other 9 of his top questions for the Las Vegas Dem Debate visit his blog Cloaking Inequity.