The year a divided Democratic Party sidelined all talk about American schools
Guest contributor | July 29, 2016
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By Chad Aldeman
Congratulations, Democrats, we made it through the nominating process without hearing much about what our nominee, Hillary Clinton, will do on education. Aside from a passing mention of tuition — and debt-free college for the middle class — Clinton’s historic acceptance speech last night continued the two-week convention trend of little to no discussion of education’s role in fueling our country’s future.
Conventions are mostly about rallying the base; the time for rolling out new policy positions has mostly passed.
Smart people who I admire and respect keep telling me this is fine. With the way this crazy election is going, it’s easy to understand why people aren’t anxious to have education thrown into the political scrum.
Others tell me voters don’t care about education anyway. There was a $60 million campaign to inject education into the 2008 campaign, and it mostly failed.
• Read the full live blog: The 74 and Bellwether Education Partners partnered to cover both the Republican and Democratic National Conventions.
But I believe this thinking assumes too much linearity, from voters to candidates to governance. If we care about education, we should want our politicians to speak up. Candidates don’t just reflect voter priorities; candidates also shape how voters see the world. We know this about political parties — partisans tend to view new events through the lens of people they already trust — and we’ve seen specific examples where leadership from a politician directly influences voters.
My personal favorite anecdote about this comes from the 2000 election. That year, George W. Bush made education one of his primary campaign themes. Half of his ads mentioned education in some way (more than Democrat Al Gore’s ads did), and the most frequently-run ad throughout the 2000 cycle was a Bush ad calling for higher standards for our schools.
Agree with Bush’s ideas or not, it had an effect. In 2000, voters selected education as one of the top issues facing the country, and Bush used the education issue to signal his “compassionate conservatism” — earning female and minority voters in numbers that Republicans typically aren’t able to. Besides helping get him elected, he now had a mandate for policy, and Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act was a direct consequence of the way he ran his campaign.
Again, you don’t have to like Bush’s particular policy prescriptions to appreciate the chain of events here. The point is that education can matter if politicians decide it does. And if politicians campaign on an issue, they can then govern behind a mandate.
It’s not clear that Donald Trump has spent much time thinking about our nation’s public schools, so it’s no surprise he hasn’t spent much time talking about it.
But Hillary Clinton is another story. She’s devoted large portions of her life to fighting for kids who depend on our public schools. We heard Bill recount this history on Wednesday night. The reason Clinton hasn’t spoken up about education this year isn’t because she doesn’t care or doesn’t have ideas; it’s because the politics within the Democratic Party don’t encourage it. As Kate Pennington and I pointed out last month, Clinton relied on a coalition of union workers and black and Hispanic families to win the nomination. Those groups are opposed to a range of education issues, including charter schools and the role of testing and school reform efforts.
Why should Clinton risk Democratic Party unity to speak out on education?
For starters, it would be the right thing to do. No one can reasonably assert our public schools are as good as they could or should be, especially for students with disabilities and low-income, black, and Hispanic students who depend on them the most.
But more importantly, Clinton should have laid out her education policies so she’ll have legitimacy to act on education once she becomes president. In particular, Clinton declined to speak out during last year’s debate over the Every Student Succeeds Act. Now that the law’s signed, there are significant implementation issues left to be addressed. The law leans on vague phrases like “significant progress,” “meaningful differentiation,” and “consistently underperforming,” and the federal government is currently soliciting feedback on what exactly these phrases should mean.
What do these phrases mean to Clinton, and how aggressive would she be in defining them? Does she support equalizing funding in low-income schools, even if it means some districts would have to change their funding structures? What kind of leader would she put in place to oversee regulations and implementation of the new law?
We don’t know the answer to these questions, but they matter. Without signaling what she prefers, Clinton won’t have as much leeway once she’s elected. Silence, too, has consequences.
We may not have heard much substantive conversation about education from the podiums in Cleveland and Philadelphia, but that shouldn’t discourage us from pushing the dialogue forward. If you care about education or the direction of education policy in this country, you should want your politicians to speak up about it too.
This article was published in partnership with The74Million.org.