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After six months of blather, we’re finally approaching the turn where the 2016 Presidential contest gets real. How unreal has everything been thus far? At this point in 2007, Barack Obama was a curiosity getting smoked by the Clinton juggernaut. So, even in a normal year, there’d be lots of uncertainty ahead. . . and this year has been anything but normal. I’ll leave the general political prognostication to those who get paid to do that sort of thing for a living, but as Iowa and New Hampshire come into view, here are a few thoughts about what developments may mean for education.
For the past four or five months, everything on the Republican side has been drowned out by the rise of the Donald and the emergence of Carson and Fiorina. There’s been remarkably little discussion about policy specifics, even as candidates like Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio have offered up a slate of serious proposals on important questions. As Trump’s numbers start to dip and Carson encounters turbulence, it’s unclear how things are going to shake out. It’s possible to sketch a scenario in which any of six or eight GOP candidates claim the nomination. If Trump and Carson fade and a candidate more explicitly focused on an “opportunity agenda” gets on the leaderboard, education may become much more visible in the GOP contest than it’s been to date.
On the Democratic side, Clinton’s troubles have opened the door to challengers. This could be lousy news for the AFT and NEA, both of which have opted to throw their full weight behind Hillary— except that her main challenger is coming from the pro-union left. Right now, the “not-Clinton” option is Bernie Sanders— a 74-year-old socialist who’s putting ideas like the effective nationalization of public higher education on the table. Make no mistake, Sanders is talking about real nationalization and not just a little more federal spending. He wants Washington to put an end to student lounges and to dictate the percentage of tenure-track faculty. If the wheels come off Clinton, and Biden doesn’t get in, it could open the door for former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley, an enthusiastic proponent of more money for education. Meanwhile, with Clinton aligned with the NEA and AFT, Sanders and O’Malley running to her left, and Jim Webb and Lincoln Chafee barely in evidence, it’s not clear that anyone will be flying the “Democrats for Education Reform” flag (except possibly Biden, if he gets in).
The turmoil in the U.S. House means there’ll be lots of unfinished business in November 2016. Boehner’s decision to resign as speaker didn’t impact the (relatively long) odds on ESEA reauthorization, but Kevin McCarthy’s decision to pull out of the speaker’s race does. We’ll see how things shake out, but there’s a lot of tumult in store— whether that results in more division or a group hug. The House is likely headed for some bitter fights over the budget and debt ceiling, procedural rules, and more. Nobody is likely to have a lot of time or patience for moving something like K-12 legislation— especially given that the Student Success Act barely passed in the first place while the administration insists it will demand a more assertive federal role than even the Senate bill contemplates.
Finally, it’s looking like this may be an election that turns heavily on foreign policy, courtesy of ISIS, Syria, Putin, Iran, and the rest. That means education is likely to play a bit role, like it did in the 2004 election which was mostly about Iraq. Education is most likely to turn up when candidates talk about the cost of higher education in terms of the concerns of the middle class. The Common Core may also get a few talking point nods. But beyond foreign affairs, this is likely to be an election about profound differences on questions like the Affordable Care Act, gun control, Planned Parenthood, and taxes— with limited attention to the ins and outs of federal programs. We might see some significant education action in DC come 2017, but it’s unlikely to get much of a preview on the 2016 trail.
Frederick Hess, AEI‘s director of education policy studies, is an educator, political scientist, author, and popular speaker and commentator