An Educator’s Explainer of the 2016 US Election

Back in July, in the onset of the 2016 Australia Federal Election, I wrote an article for this blog about the educational policies proposed by the major parties and candidates.

While we thought our election and its protracted aftermath was excruciatingly long, it pales in comparison the battle for the White House.

I am currently in the United States studying at the Boston College Lynch School of Education for the Fall to complete my Master of Teaching. As a self-described political junkie, it is a remarkable time to be in America to witness this truly historic election. Since my first trip to America as a 14 year old, I have obsessed over the awesomeness, intensity and hypocrisy of the American civic experience.

The Presidential Election, a bitter battle between Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton and Republican nominee Donald Trump, has consumed the attention of the world.

Despite the myriad policy challenges looming at the conclusion of Barack Obama’s Presidency, the campaign has often been consumed with a litany of scandals that have derailed the messages of the two candidates.

Regardless, it is important to consider the stakes of this election in terms of the education policies proposed by Clinton and Trump.

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A SYSTEM OF CONTRASTS

Much like the country itself, America’s education system is a contrast between stunning successes and glaring inequities across communities. Simply think of all the prestigious universities that are globally renowned and, apart from the usual suspects in Europe, the vast majority are American.

According to the Times Higher Education University Rankings of 2016-17, 15 of the top 20 universities in the world were American. The trade-off for this success is that American college graduates are some of the most indebted upon graduation, with the graduating class of 2015 on average owing $35,051 in student loans.

Despite this, the K-12 system can’t be considered to be among the global elite. The most recent results from the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) in 2012 placed the U.S. a mediocre 35th out of 64 countries in Maths and 27th in Science. Beyond these issues of student achievement is a range of pressing policy concerns around the influence of race on education, an intense culture of standardised testing and ideological battles over the teaching of topics like religion and climate change.

Upon election, either Clinton or Trump will be able to appoint a new Secretary of Education to oversee federal policy across the fifty states and the District of Columbia.

The policies they bring with them to the White House are worth our scrutiny, even if voters suggest that policies around the economy, terrorism and foreign policy are of greater significance in determining their choice of candidate, according to a Pew Research Centre study in July.

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THE CLINTON PLAN … A BLEND OF BERNIE AND BARACK

If there’s one thing that Hillary Clinton is known for, it’s that she’s a proud policy wonk who loves sweating over the details. This is evident in her raft of proposals for the American education system, with nine separate statements on her campaign website related to education.

This should be no surprise, considering her extensive focus on issues related to children throughout her career: most notably in her 1996 book, It Takes a Village, which advocated for a more community-oriented focus to supporting childhood development.

Clinton’s policies can be considered across the three different levels of education for America’s children. Interestingly, K-12 education has been the least emphasised of her campaign, which instead talks at great length about early childhood education and reforming college debt.

For the youngest of children, Clinton strongly supports a program of universal prekindergarten, funded through a state-federal partnership. She also intends to leverage a program, Home Instruction for Parents of Preschool Youngsters (HIPPY), which she pioneered as First Lady of Arkansas in the 1980s to help parents teach their children at home before they begin kindergarten.


Despite being beaten soundly by Bernie Sanders for the support of college age students, Clinton has collaborated with her former primary rival to develop a policy to make college debt free for all.

In short, Clinton anticipates that by 2021, families with income up to $125,000 will pay no tuition at in-state four-year public colleges and universities. And from the beginning, every student from a family making $85,000 a year or less will be able to go to an in-state four-year public college or university without paying tuition.”

 The policy demonstrates the increasing influence Sanders’ views have on Clinton’s policies and portend an active commencement to a potential Clinton presidency.

 


Most intriguing, though, are her policies for America’s public schools. As per her official policy, she first intends to launch a national campaign to modernise and elevate the profession of teaching whilst dually paring back some of the more controversial elements of the Obama education agenda.

One of the clearest manifestations of this break with the Obama Administration is the inclusion of Teachers’ Union leaders in her policy team – who were not advising Obama’s campaigns and are among some of the most powerful opponents of his education policies.

Consequently, some advocates of President Obama’s agenda worry that some of his key decisions, such as those to support the growth of charter schools and use standardised testing as an incentive for school improvement funds, will be rolled back under the Clinton Administration.

As such, Clinton’s education agenda, were she to be elected, may offer some of the more compelling intra-party debates in the years to come, particularly as the Sanders wing of the party grows in voice and representation.

Policy available at https://www.hillaryclinton.com/issues/.

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THE TRUMP PLAN … YES THERE IS ONE!

Despite carving out policy positions out of step with previous Republican orthodoxy, primarily in his hostility to free trade agreements, Trump’s platform on education is more faithful to the Grand Old Party’s recent positions.

In contrast to Clinton’s repeated discussions on education matters, talk of the future of schools and colleges doesn’t feature extensively at Trump events, with a focus instead on his provocative views on illegal immigration, crime and the threat of ISIS.

When probed by the Washington Post for a policy outline, a spokesperson directed the reporter to view the campaign website for more information along with this statement from the candidate.

“As your president, I will be the nation’s biggest cheerleader for school choice. I want every single inner city child in America who is today trapped in a failing school to have the freedom – the civil right – to attend the school of their choice. I understand many stale old politicians will resist. But it’s time for our country to start thinking big once again. We spend too much time quibbling over the smallest words, when we should spend our time dreaming about the great adventures that lie ahead.”

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Indeed, reviewing the policy on Trump’s website, school choice is the main focus. Trump’s proposal seeks to add $20 billion in federal investment to enable parents to choose a school beyond that prescribed by their local district. Further to this end is a favouring of policies that promote the growth of magnet and charter schools, which critics suggest would reduce the funds available for public schools with the loss of suitable oversight.

Similarly, Trump favours less government control and a more localised focus in setting education policy. This is particularly evident in his disregard for the Common Core standards, which are learning standards in math and English language arts that were developed through a collaboration between the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers.

According to the Core’s website, they’re being used in 42 states and the District of Columbia. Whilst such pledges are music to the ears of his Republican base, who resent the role of Washington in their daily lives, doubt exists about his ability to undo the policy, which is essentially an agreement among the states.

 


In addition, Trump has favoured a more market-driven policy to fund higher education. In May, a senior Trump policy advisor, Sam Clovis, explained to Inside Higher Ed that a Trump administration would work to get the government out of the student loan business and restore lending to private banks, despite doubts from even conservative academics and commentators as to its feasibility.

Policy available at https://www.donaldjtrump.com/policies/education

HOW ABOUT THOSE THIRD PARTIES?

While they both failed to crack into the Presidential Debates, third party candidates Gary Johnson of the Libertarian Party and Jill Stein of the Green Party have been vocal presences on the campaign trail. With such discontent for the two major candidates, Johnson and Stein’s candidacies may prove pivotal in deciding the outcome.

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True to his form as an opponent of most activities conducted by the federal government, Gary Johnson has proposed eliminating the Federal Department of Education.

In believing that education is best delivered by state and local governments, his proposals include removing the Common Core standards and “other attempts to impose national standards and requirements on local schools” along with a universally available program for school choice.

Policy available at https://www.johnsonweld.com/education

Seeking to capitalise on a lack of enthusiasm for Hillary Clinton’s candidacy amongst former supporters of Bernie Sanders’ primary campaign, Jill Stein has put out the most government intensive education policy.

Most notable is her pledge to “abolish student debt to free a generation of Americans from debt servitude” using quantitative easing. This has been viewed with scepticism by many economists.

Additionally, her policies focus on a de-corporatisation of the education system by increasing federal funding, abolishing performance pay and replacing Common Core with standards written by educators.

Policy available at http://www.jill2016.com/platform

WHAT COMES NEXT?

People voting in polling place

People voting in polling place

The American people have a tremendously powerful decision to make on November 8th. In electing either Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump to be the next President, they will be voting for starkly different visions for the future of the United States, with the future of America’s schools and colleges at stake as well.

With the polls suggesting a close race to the finish, and the role the American leadership plays in our world, do encourage any and every American friend or family member you know to go vote.

Their vote matters. For all of us.