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Stark contrast on U.S. schools

Opinion

Ferrel Guillory

Ferrel Guillory

By Ferrel Guillory

Progress on Public Life

A recent national survey, which I featured here last week, found that bolstering education ranked at the top when American mothers were asked what they would like the next president to accomplish to improve the lives of their children. So, the natural follow-up is to ask:

What have the leading presidential candidates said and proposed on preK-12 education issues?

Even before the primaries conclude, the state-by-state contests have resulted in Donald Trump as the lone surviving candidate for the Republican presidential nomination, and Hillary Clinton so far ahead of still-running Bernie Sanders as to have the Democratic nomination within her grasp. On education, as on most factors at play in this especially intense election year, the Trump-Clinton contrast is stark.

It’s fair to say that education is not central to the Trump campaign. He has issued no education agenda. The “positions” tab on his website lists seven issues, none of them education. After surgeon Ben Carson dropped out of the GOP presidential race, Trump said he would look to Carson for advice on education issues.

His website also contains 20 short videos, Trump speaking directly into a camera, on an array of topics with such titles as “First Day in Office,” “Political Correctness,” and “Life Changing Experiences.” One is simply titled, “Education,” and runs for 52 seconds.

“I’m a tremendous believer in education,” Trump begins — then he goes on, as he does on other matters, bombastically to describe the U.S. as failing and losing.

“Common Core is a disaster; we can’t let it continue,” he says, and adds nothing about how he would support high standards. Without citing his evidence but apparently referring to one composite score on one international test several years ago, he asserts that the U.S. ranks “28th in the world.” And yet, he says, “we spend more per pupil than any other country in the world. By far. It’s not even a close second.”

The Washington Post reported data from the OECD — an organization of developed countries — showing at least five with higher per pupil spending on K-12 schools, though the U.S. spends more on higher education.

In the survey for Shriver Media and Save the Children, more than eight out of 10 mothers said they would be more likely to vote for a candidate who supports expanding access to, and improving the quality of, early childhood education.

Trump doesn’t address early childhood education. On her campaign website, Clinton devotes a section of her multiple position papers to early childhood, setting as a goal to “ensure that every 4-year-old in America has access to high-quality preschool in the next 10 years.” She favors “universal preK,” supports federal funding to states for preschool and calls for “doubling our investment” in Early Head Start.

The Clinton campaign website also has a section on K-12 education in which she pledges to “make high-quality education available to every child — in every ZIP code — in America.” She says she will work to make effective the new Every Student Succeeds Act, which shifts more responsibility onto states and school districts.

And she emphasizes assistance to students with disabilities.

In her 1996 book, “It Takes a Village,” Clinton wrote approvingly of charter schools as promoting choice in public education. Now, her position papers do not mention charter schools. Clinton has been endorsed by the National Association of Educators and the American Federation of Teachers. She campaigns as an advocate for “training, mentorship and support” for teachers to “thrive in the classroom.”

Since the mid-1980s, when as the state’s first lady, she brought the HIPPY program — Home Instruction for Parents of Preschool Youngsters — to Arkansas, Clinton has immersed herself in state and federal education policy discussions. When she campaigned in North Carolina before the March 15 Democratic primary, she appeared at a Durham high school and came prepared to criticize the Republican legislative majority for softening the state’s commitment to public education.

While it’s highly unlikely that education will emerge into the center of a general election campaign already becoming a caustic contest of character, the education debate so far is mostly a one-sided conversation.

Ferrel Guillory is the director of the Program on Public Life, professor of the practice at the UNC School of Media and Journalism, and the vice chairman of EducationNC.

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