Third Presidential Debate Recap: The American Electorate is Left Guessing on K-12 Education Policy

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The third and final presidential debate is over. Viewers and the media agree that while the last square-off between Clinton and Trump had its expected off-topic and personal exchanges, it was the most substantive of the three debates. Yet, once again, the candidates did not debate education policy.

To her credit, Clinton did mention education. Like in the past debates, the topic came up when she touted her economic plan. “I feel strongly we have to have an education system that starts with preschool and goes through college,” she said. “That’s why I want more technical education in high schools and community colleges, real apprenticeships to prepare people for the real jobs of the future.”

Clinton took a page from her running mate Tim Kaine’s book when mentioning career and technical education, a policy area near and dear to his heart (though he did not mention it during the vice presidential debate). She then went on to mention her plan of making college debt free for families earning less than $125,000 — a plan she worked on with Bernie Sanders, and one of the education topics she often mentions during public speaking events.

But those hoping to hear Clinton talk about her plans for students in elementary and middle school were left disappointed. Both Clinton and Trump finished the debate cycle with negligible mentions of K-12 policy.

That leaves the education community guessing at what K-12 policy might look like under Clinton or Trump. If the candidates themselves or their running mates won’t talk about the issue, the next best place to look is their advisers and surrogates.

Last week, Christopher Edley, the President of the Opportunity Institute and an informal adviser to the Clinton campaign, said during a discussion at Teachers College at Columbia University that Clinton believes that over the last 20 years there has been too much attention and emphasis on holding students and teachers accountable. He also said educational equity would be a focus for Clinton.

Edley’s talking points about accountability are in line with how the national teachers’ unions view the topic. It’s no secret that Clinton has close ties to both the NEA and AFT — both unions endorsed her candidacy early — but Clinton herself has said little about how she aligns with the unions or whether she may, like President Obama, push forward education reforms that the unions may not be on board with.

To be sure, Edley is not Clinton, so his words should be taken with a grain of salt. But because the candidate herself has been nearly silent on these issues, his thoughts offer a glimpse into how Clinton may be thinking about K-12 policy.

As for Trump, his advisers have said little on education. And that may not matter. As of today, Clinton has an 86 percent chance of winning the Presidency. At this point, due to poll standings, a Trump win would be unprecedented.  

So that means we’re likely to head into a Clinton Administration with little idea of how a President Clinton will handle matters of K-12 education. Education practitioners, policy leaders, and advocates must continue to push Clinton to voice and release detailed plans for K-12 policy. Although ESSA settles K-12 education policy from a congressional standpoint, it’s far from settled at the presidential level. A presumptive President Clinton would have a lot to accomplish in the first six to eight months on the job, and the American public deserves to hear her plans for carrying out those tasks sooner rather than later.