In all three nationally televised presidential debates between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, there were missed opportunities to address what some consider the most important national issue, K-12 public education. The candidates have avoided discussing plans for improving our nation’s schools. On the campaign trail and in debates, many issues deserve attention and discussion. If education were losing out to healthy debates on jobs, the economy, national security—or any issue with legitimate impact on our daily lives—citizens might be more forgiving of the neglect. Sadly, though, the national discussion on public education is drowned out by conspiracy theories, bouncing polls and email scandals. While our presidential candidates work hard to avoid the topic, other national figures take the opposite approach, speaking-up and taking action on education policy despite the political risks. Across the ideological spectrum, business leaders get it—ensuring every student receives an excellent education is the most important domestic issue facing our country. Consequently, foundations and wealthy entrepreneurs have pumped billions of dollars into education efforts over the past decade.
So Why Do Presidential Candidates All But Ignore This Issue?
Year after year, K-12 public education receives only superficial lip service during national campaigns. Fortunately, presidential candidates aren’t the only ones who can take action to address the public education crisis. The best-known education philanthropists are, notably, business leaders who understand the moral and economic importance of high-performing schools, including the Walton Family Foundation and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. These early entrants have been joined more recently by Netflix founder Reed Hasting’s Hastings Fund and the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, pediatrician Priscilla Chan.
They represent the full spectrum of political diversity but are unified in support of student success. While their strategies differ, they share a focus on developing students’ potential and passions. Partisanship aside, they invest political and financial capital to put their innovation and reform ideas into play. How sad, by contrast, to examine the shallowness of thought and lack of action demonstrated by Clinton and Trump on K-12 education. Since announcing his candidacy and throughout the Republican primary, the sum total of Trump’s education vision was decrying the Common Core State Standards. More recently, he has begun touting school vouchers and promising to use federal funds to “provide school choice to every disadvantaged student in America.” It’s lofty, but utterly lacking in detail. Clinton is no better on specifics. Her website lays out the vague goal of “modernizing and elevating” the teaching profession, providing greater access to computer science, fixing crumbling school buildings, and dismantling the school-to-prison pipeline. All nice ideas, to be sure, but there is no clarity or commitment to what she will actually do if elected. The first presidential debate in September was telling. The issue of K-12 public education was not addressed. Clinton casually uttered the word education three times, Trump not even once.
Strike one. By the second debate, even in a town hall setting, a serious conversation about education stood no chance in light of a newly released videotape exposing Trump's vulgar comments about women, and, similarly distracting, the release of Clinton’s illegally obtained emails and speeches which contradict her public explanations.
Strike two. In the third and final debate, 20 days before the election, it was made clear that neither candidate was willing to present a definitive plan to improve the nation’s schools.
Education, for this election cycle, is out.
What Will It Take?
What will it take to make this most vital of issues a major focus of future presidential campaigns? It’s time parents, students and employers demand specific details on federal education policies and hold presidential candidates accountable to those commitments. Philanthropic and business leaders, media outlets, and the American public will need to elevate their voices above the cacophony of competing interests to make it clear to our political leadership that the time for superficial platitudes is past. We must demand that education is a central issue in future campaigns. Every four years, the entirety of one nationally televised presidential debate should be dedicated to the subject of education. This would force presidential candidates to step up to the plate and at least take a swing on the issue.
Tim Taylor is the co-founder and executive director of America Succeeds, bringing a unique background of executive, non-profit and public policy experience to the organization.
Prior to launching America Succeeds, he served as the founding president of Colorado Succeeds. Tim began his career on Capitol Hill as an assistant to Congressman Richard Burr (NC) and advanced to serve as the senior ...