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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.

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