One issue that has strangely taken a back seat in the presidential campaign so far has been K-12 education.
That could change with the selection of Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., as Hillary Clinton’s running mate.
Because of Clinton’s lifelong interest in and attention to early childhood education, early learning and preschool have featured far more prominently than what happens to children in kindergarten through high school.
She has made lowering costs of going to college a central part of her education platform, echoing proposals put forward by her major rival, Bernie Sanders.
In her acceptance speech Thursday night she spoke at some length about her plans to make “college tuition free for the middle class and debt-free for all,” and “liberating millions of people who already have student debt.”
“It’s just not right that Donald Trump can ignore his debt, but students and families can’t refinance theirs,” she said.
She also observed that “a four-year degree should not be the only path to a job,” and pledged to “help more people learn a skill or practice a trade and make a good living doing it.”
In her speech she made passing references to “teachers who change lives” and the right of Americans to have access to a “good school,” but those were the only references to K-12 education. She has previously expressed support for the Common Core standards in English and math in a pro forma way (reiterated by her chief domestic policy advisor Ann O’Leary at a conference in Philadelphia this week).
Last week, Trump similarly avoided public school in his 70-minute convention speech, except to pledge that he would “rescue kids from failing schools by helping their parents send them to a safe school of their choice.” He also accused Clinton of preferring “to protect education bureaucrats than serve American children.”
Earlier in the campaign he had said he was opposed to the Common Core, labeling it “education through Washington, D.C.” (a claim that PolitiFact rated “false”), but little beyond that.
Kaine, as senator and governor, has what a U.S. News & World Report article called “a hefty education resume.” In the Senate, he was a co-founder of the Career and Technical Education Caucus. Perhaps more significantly, his wife, Anne Holton, was secretary of education in Virginia until two days ago when she resigned her post after her husband’s nomination. But she has had a long history of involvement in education at all levels.
Her father, Linwood Holton, was a former Republican governor and played an important role in integrating Virginia schools. Both his daughters attended previously segregated schools, and in one instance he actually escorted Anne’s older sister Tayloe to an all-black school, a moment documented in a classic photo from the civil rights era.
Kaine and his wife in turn sent all three of their now-adult children to Richmond public schools.
That’s unlike both Clinton and Trump, who enrolled their children in private schools (although as the Clintons noted at the time, Chelsea attended public schools in Arkansas before her parents moved into the White House).
It seems clear that both Kaine and his wife favor strategies very different from the top-down, test-heavy, high-stakes reforms of the No Child Left Behind era. Their views are consistent with reforms currently in play in California, which similarly downplay the centrality of testing, emphasize preparing students for college and careers instead of proficiency on standardized tests, along with supporting educators so they succeed instead of punishing them for failure.
In an op-ed piece in the Richmond Times-Dispatch in December 2013, Kaine criticized “over-testing” of students, especially in the elementary grades. Rather than sweeping reforms like No Child Left Behind, he promoted the idea of “personalized learning,” praising the individual education plans required for special education students. In fact, he singled out the 1975 Individual Disabilities Education Act as being the most important reform in recent decades, not NCLB.
He also challenged the national focus on promoting more rigorous evaluations in order to weed out “bad teachers.” That problem, he wrote, “pales beside the larger issue of how to keep good teachers.” He sympathized with teachers’ low salaries, testing pressures, and the lack of esteem in which they are held. “We need a robust debate about how to value and attract good teachers,” he wrote.
In a more recent article in the Washington Post, Holton went after excessive testing even more strongly, describing how Virginia had eliminated several end-of-course tests. She criticized “multi-hour tests that measure students’ endurance more than their learning,” and suggested that the emphasis on testing had done nothing to close the achievement gap. “Teachers are teaching to the tests,” she wrote. “Students’ and teachers’ love of learning and teaching are sapped.”
It’s impossible to predict now how many of these ideas will filter into the presidential campaign this fall – or into policy-making should candidate Clinton be elected president in November.
But given that Clinton herself has been largely silent on these issues, Kaine, Holton and others around the country who have been questioning the reform strategies of the No Child Left Behind era appear to have an opportunity to fill in the noticeable K-12 blanks on the campaign trail.
It is also the case that last December the normally gridlocked Congress achieved what Obama called a “Christmas miracle” – agreeing on the Every Student Succeeds Act as a replacement for the No Child Left Behind law.
That means that many of the big federal issues on education have been mostly settled, for now at least. But recent skirmishes between lawmakers on both sides of the aisle and U.S. Secretary of Education John King, Jr. indicate that there are still issues to be resolved, mainly around how much control the federal government should exercise over education at a state and local level.
Presidential leadership – with vice-presidential input? – will be key in determining how those issues play out in future years.