Education policy plays hooky

header-hoover-institution-fellows1-1by Nat Malkus

The presidential candidates haven’t devoted enough attention to K-12 education issues.

6a00e54f8c25c9883401348777dc53970c-300wiAs the Trump and Clinton campaigns shift their focus to the general election, and the Sanders campaign fights on to remain relevant, those looking for any focus on K-12 education are still stuck wanting. With the election five months off, no candidate has moved past platitudes.

Trump’s education plan is succinct, at 51 seconds. He “will end common core [sic]. It’s a disaster.” He might cut the Department of Education, but has no real K-12 policy proposals. Clinton has a little more text on her website, promising support for teachers, but has offered no concrete proposals. Sanders’s website centers on his critique of No Child Left Behind, which was replaced last December.

The absence of attention to K-12 education is all the more striking next to the inordinate attention given to college and early childhood education. While the Trump campaign has been quiet on higher education, both Democratic candidates have made significant proposals, with substantial increases in spending. Sanders has a plan for free college that would cost $75 billion a year, according to his campaign. Clinton’s more modest plan calls for “debt free” college, with a price tag of roughly $35 billion a year.

Both Democratic candidates also promise significant investment in early childhood programs. Sanders has called for universal child care and preschool, with costs estimated at $35 billion annually. Not to be outdone, Clinton has called for “universal preschool for all of America’s children,” which, along with increased child care assistance and capping the proportion of income families spend on childcare expenses, would require an estimated $10 billion in additional annual federal spending.

These proposed spending estimates – $110 billion for the Sanders campaign and $45 billion for the Clinton campaign – are enormous. Three comparisons might bring them into perspective. Compared to $3.7 trillion, the total federal spending in 2015, Sanders’s and Clinton’s proposals would amount to 2.8 and 1.2 percent increases, respectively, just for education. Compared to $154 billion, the total federal education spending in 2015, Sanders’s education proposals would be a 71 percent increase and Clinton’s would add 29 percent. Compared to the combined spending on Title I grants ($15 billion), IDEA grants for special education ($11 billion) and school lunch programs ($21 billion) – the three most expensive federal K-12 education spending programs – Sanders’s proposals cost 233 percent more and Clinton’s cost almost the same amount.

The kicker is that these large increases in spending would not invest another nickel in the nation’s K-12 education system.

Why have the candidates been so absent on K-12 education? One possible reason is that voters don’t seem to think it important. Polls have repeatedly shown that education doesn’t rank very highly among voters’ top concerns. Another might be that K-12 policy was just overhauled. The Every Student Succeeds Act replaced No Child Left Behind in December, arguably assuaging many of public schools’ recent pain points. With its passage, federal K-12 policy feels to many like a done deal.

There is also the political reality that most K-12 education issues don’t provide easy positions for candidates to take. As my colleague Rick Hess has written, many K-12 education issues today – including charter schools, testing and national standards – don’t neatly fall on either the left or right, making them easier to ignore than address.

Those reasons are not good enough to justify candidates’ silence. Opinions differ on the appropriate federal role in K-12 education, but so far, the lack of information from candidates leaves experts guessing about what role they will pursue. Whether the next president is Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders, voters should be concerned about how he or she will govern the nation’s public schools.

Our schools are key to our nation’s economic future, and we need to improve. Over the past year, National Assessment of Educational Progress scores, which measure student performance in 4th, 8th and 12th grades, dropped for the first time ever. On international tests, U.S. students (and adults!) lag well behind many other industrialized nations. The solutions to our education challenges may be best administered at the state or local levels, but it will matter who is at the helm on this national challenge.

A case in point is the Every Student Succeeds Act, the primary federal K-12 education law. It was passed, in large part, to return power to states and outlaw the heavy federal influence used by the Obama Department of Education under No Child Left Behind. Just months later, however, the Department is pushing new regulations on the law’s “supplement, not supplant” provision, against congressional intent. Whether and how the next administration acts on those regulations will have enormous consequences for school districts across the nation. Those consequences potentially include revising hundreds of collective bargaining agreements, upending teacher compensation systems or forcing the relocation of teachers. The next president will do the heavy lifting on implementing the law, for good or ill.

Candidates, and voters, have many important issues to juggle in this election, and K-12 education shouldn’t necessarily be number one. Indeed, even among education issues, whether early childhood and higher education policies should be higher on the pecking order is arguable. But so far, the candidates’ treatment of education has been either overwhelmingly lopsided or entirely absent. The nation’s public schools deserve more attention from the voters, the media, and our next president.

Nat Malkus is a research fellow in education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), where he specializes in K–12 education.

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