Clinton, Trump diverge on visions for K12

By: | September 14, 2016

When the next president takes office in January, he or she will preside over major shifts in the K12 education landscape—from implementation of the Every Student Succeeds Act and Common Core, to the rollout of nationwide STEM initiatives, to the simmering battles over charters, school choice and teachers unions.

When the next president takes office in January, he or she will preside over major shifts in the K12 education landscape—from implementation of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) and Common Core, to the rollout of nationwide STEM initiatives, to the simmering battles over charters, school choice and teachers unions.

Even with so much at stake, experts agree that comparing Donald Trump’s and Hillary Clinton’s philosophies can be challenging. Clinton is a lifelong public official with a detailed track record on nearly every hot-button K12 issue.

Trump, however, is a political newcomer not known for his policy precision, many pundits agree. His most common refrain on education is a promise to eliminate the Common Core, which the president has no actual power to dissolve.

“Clinton has been more involved in education issues, and we can expect her to hit the ground running on her education priorities,” says Noelle Ellerson, associate executive director of policy and advocacy at the Superintendent’s Association. “It’s not clear what, if any, education platform Trump has.”

“Trump rarely talks about education at all,” agrees Jon Bernstein, executive director for the National Coalition for Technology in Education and Training.

If Trump is elected, Bernstein predicts he will most likely hew to the GOP platform, which lays out traditional conservative priorities on education: pushing vouchers, charter schools and budget cuts, while emphasizing local control over education decisions.

Here’s how the candidates stack up on key issues:


The next president will preside over implementing ESSA. It combines some GOP priorities—such as empowering states to devise their own education goals—with traditional Democratic policy agendas, such as a federal mandate to improve performance of poor and minority students.

When the law was first passed with a bipartisan vote in 2015, Clinton was supportive: “It puts us on a path to provide states and teachers flexibility to serve the needs of their students,” she said in a December 2015 statement.

Trump, for his part, hasn’t publicly spoken about ESSA, and the GOP platform doesn’t directly reference it. But Trump has voiced support for empowering states to make their own decisions, which is one of ESSA’s major thrusts.

“I don’t know to what extent the president will personally get into the nitty gritty of implementing ESSA,” Bernstein predicts. “It would really be in the hands of their departments of education.”

Since Trump has floated the idea of abolishing the U.S. education department, Ellerson worries that ESSA could be in danger under a Trump presidency. “Under Clinton, ESSA will be implemented with a scalpel,” she says. “Trump says he wants to do away with the whole department, so it’s totally unclear where that leads.”

School choice, charters, unions

When Donald Trump accepted the GOP nomination at the Republican National Convention in July, he promised to remove kids from “failing schools by helping their parents send them to a safe school of their choice.”

Trump’s son, Donald Trump Jr., said at the Republican convention that schools are run now merely for the benefit of administrators and teachers, not students.

“Our schools used to be an elevator to the middle class,” Trump Jr. said. “Now they’re stalled on the ground floor. They’re like Soviet-era department stores that are run for the benefit of the clerks and not the customers.”

On the campaign trail Trump has pledged support for vouchers, charters and magnet schools—anything that promotes “competition.” The GOP platform proposes education savings accounts, vouchers and tuition tax credits.

“Trump talks about school choice a great deal,” Bernstein says. “It’s unclear what mix of vouchers, or charters or some other mechanism he would push for.”

Clinton has carved out a more detailed view on school choice. She has always opposed vouchers, and while she has courted support from anti-charter teachers unions, she has praised charter schools.

In a speech in July to the National Education Association—which endorsed Clinton—she drew boos when suggesting she wouldn’t stand in the way of charter schools: “When schools get it right, whether they’re traditional public schools or public charter schools, let’s figure out what’s working” she said. “And share it with schools across America.”

However, Ellerson says: “Clinton has a symbiotic relationship with the teachers unions.” She predicts that on any policy discussion—from charters to teacher preparation and professional development—Clinton will consult closely with union leaders.

Trump, on the other hand, has leaned toward not being a strong ally of unions. In his speech at the GOP convention, he took a swipe at Clinton’s alliance with the unions saying this:

“My opponent would rather protect education bureaucrats than serve American children,” he said in one of the only references to this stance on education in the July speech.

The GOP platform also criticizes Democrats for trying to “placate the leaders of the teachers’ unions.”

The unions, meanwhile, are no fans of Trump. American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten has gone so far as to chide Trump for promoting a “bully environment” in schools, with his often-aggressive public rhetoric.

STEM, teacher preparation

Bernstein notices alignment between the parties and the candidates on the role of technology. “For me, this is the upbeat piece: Both GOP and Democratic platforms recognize the value of technology in education,” he says.

When it comes to making sure students have access to the internet, STEM coursework and teachers who are equipped for today’s classroom, both parties recognize the president will need to take the lead, Bernstein says.

Clinton has provided more specifics than Trump when it comes to tech in the classroom. She has proposed doubling funding over the Obama administration’s $120 million Investing in Innovation initiative, and setting aside half of that funding for computer science courses.

She also has a goal to recruit 50,000 teachers who can teach computer science in public schools over the next decade.

On the campaign trail, Trump constantly references American school children’s low test scores, and compares them to STEM-heavy educational systems in countries like Korea and Japan.

At the same time, he promised to cut education spending—the GOP platform argues that per-pupil spending is too high. Both Ellerson and Bernstein say it’s unclear how Trump plans to make STEM a priority without spending more money.

But just because both candidates acknowledge the importance of technology, it doesn’t mean the next administration will craft wise policy, Ellerson says.

She is concerned that the next president may try to create what she calls “silo stand-alone programs.” Without fusing tech initiatives to existing federal legislation, she warns, any new technology initiative won’t last.

“The president should work to strengthen provisions in ESSA, and in titles I, II and IV, that can provide lasting federal support, and not just launch a ‘pet project,’” Ellerson says.

Bernstein agrees, and pointed toward ESSA’s Student Support and Academic Enrichment Grant—an up to $1.65 billion allocation, which has allowed some districts to purchase mobile hotspots for students without internet to take home and use for school work.

U.S. Department of Education

The future of the U.S. Department of Education may be the issue where most is at stake. When asked what budget cuts he’ll make as president, Trump has repeatedly floated the idea of eliminating the department wholesale, a policy which the GOP has suggested in the past.

If Trump did that, it would complicate, rather than simplify, the bureaucracy, since all the federal funding streams would still need to be directed from somewhere, Ellerson says.

“Would he put it all under Health and Human Services? That would be a bureaucratic nightmare,” she predicts.

“We are going to cut spending big league,” Trump told Joe Scarborough on MSNBC last February. “We are going to cut Department of Education—we spend more money per pupil than any country in the world by far.”

As for Clinton, her choice of education secretary would perhaps be the biggest signal of her K12 agenda, Bernstein says. If she’s elected, Clinton might pick a union leader like Randi Weingarten, an Obama ally like Delaware Gov. Jack Markell, or a policy wonk like Stanford University’s Linda Darling-Hammond. “Stay tuned,” Bernstein says. “A lot rides on who’s in that chair.”

As for Trump, while flirting with shuttering the department, he’s also hinted that his former rival, retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, would be a good pick for secretary. Carson will be “very involved with education, something that’s an expertise of his,” Trump stated.

Carson has no formal background in education policy.

No matter who wins in the fall, both Ellerson and Bernstein agree that the next president can’t afford to be a backseat driver when it comes to K12 education policy.

“The candidates have to be pressed hard on where they stand now,” Bernstein says. “ Ninety percent of Americans with children send their kids to public schools—this is a big deal.”

Avi Asher-Schapiro is a freelance writer in Brooklyn, New York