What’s missing from Democratic debates • Europe’s antitrust Google gaffe
Sanders and Clinton avoid an issue at the heart of U.S. global competitiveness
Neither Bernie Sanders nor Hillary Clinton is defending one of Barack Obama’s most important legacies: education reform. Instead of taking on the teachers unions, as the president did, both candidates offer an agenda that amounts to spending more and demanding less. It’s not a winning combination.
Sanders beats the drum for his plan to provide free college tuition for rich and poor alike, yet remains virtually silent on how to improve failing elementary, middle, and high schools. His campaign website provides explanations of his position on more than 30 issues—but not K-12 education.
When asked about the issue, Sanders frames it as a choice between tax breaks for the wealthy and money for schools. But he surely knows that the U.S. already spends more on education than most other developed countries. If money mattered most in driving results, American students—including those in poor communities—would be leading the world. Instead, they’re in the middle of the pack.
Clinton at least devotes more words to the issue on her website. She calls for implementing a law Congress passed last year, the Every Student Succeeds Act, which gave states more leeway in setting (and lowering) standards, investing in teacher training, and helping students with disabilities. In debates, she’s hardly gotten more specific, calling for an “education SWAT team” to rescue failing schools.
During the 2008 campaign, Obama stuck out his neck to support merit pay for teachers. As president, he—and his education secretary, Arne Duncan—created a program, Race to the Top, that gave states incentives to expand charter schools and hold teachers, principals, and schools accountable for their performance. It was the most ambitious education agenda of any president in history, and union leaders hated most of it. In 2014 they even called for Duncan’s resignation.
But the focus on accountability got swallowed up by middleclass resistance to testing and higher standards, and eventually they retreated. The Every Student Succeeds Act, which Obama signed into law, will make it difficult for future presidents to create state-based incentive programs, and it will allow states that lower their standards to escape federal consequences.
Republicans, too, have backed off from their commitment to accountability, albeit for different reasons. George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act, however flawed, established the principle that the federal government has a central role to play in holding states responsible for student achievement. Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, and John Kasich have rejected that idea.
The past two decades have produced some encouraging gains in student performance. Teachers are vital to this progress. But they aren’t the only constituency, or even the most important one, whose interests candidates should consider.