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Education Is Not Absent From the 2016 Presidential Race

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There is a growing consensus developing that the people running for president this year are not interested in education because, apparently, they're not talking about it enough. I'm not so sure that's true.

T. Robinson Ahlstrom is the latest to inveigh against the lack of attention being paid to education by the presidential candidates in this cycle. In fact, Ahlstrom's comment on this, which was published in print as "'Amusing Ourselves to Death': Where Is Education?," took a turn as one of the most popular articles here on Education Week's website. In it, Ahlstrom says this: 

The 2016 presidential race may prove to be the first in more than half a century in which education emerges as a key national issue, but not because the candidates demonstrate any particular concern over or passion for the quality of America's schools. Rather, it will happen because the campaign itself calls into question that quality.

He's not the only one alarmed. Rick Hess, who blogs here at Ed Week like I do, has a theory that the public doesn't actually care all that much about education anymore, explaining why the candidates aren't talking about it. Like Ahlstrom, Hess seems to think we've been duped into accepting the circus-like atmosphere of this year's presidential race as the main event, rather than some sorry sideshow, and that our policy discourse is being impoverished as a result. On this last point he may be correct—we're always better off having substantive conversations about the things that matter in our everyday lives—but I'm not sure I buy the first part of his premise. Have Americans really lost interest in the issues surrounding the education of our young people? And are the candidates reflecting their apathy?

I don't think so.

First, let's get this out of the way: anybody who works in education knows that we're probably better off when political candidates, most of whom couldn't teach their way out of a paper bag, aren't talking too much about education. Too many politicians like to make policy from the pulpit, so to speak, and don't like to do their homework. When that's the case, silence is golden.

But the conventional wisdom is that candidates for president should be talking about education, so let's look at the evidence Ahlstrom and Hess provide to make the claim that education is off the agenda. It's specious at best. In Ahlstrom's case, his argument draws from a prediction Neil Postman made thirty years ago that one day we'd be unable to distinguish the difference between a real policy discourse and a fake one meant to distract us from what really matters. Ahlstrom's point is a damning one: our schools have gotten so bad, he says, that they can't even prepare people to understand politics anymore. We're satisfied with "baby talk" when we ought to be engaged in serious public dialogue.

In a similar vein, Hess blames Trump—a convenient target for whatever ails us these days—for hijacking the debate. "Trump has dragged the GOP primary far away from conventional policy debate," Hess complains. "Indeed," he adds, "talk about the particulars of social policy can sound dull and out-of-touch in the face of Trump's eruptions." Stupid as we are, we just can't help being distracted by Trump's entertainments and his magnetic hold on our collective psyche (if not our news media). Worse, the other candidates know it. Why bother trying to have an adult conversation with us if all we really want to hear are insults?

Personally, I think there's something else going on here. Let me be blunt: there is substantive talk coming out of the mouths of some candidates in this cycle, but it's all coming from one side of the so-called debate. When Hess complains about "sporadic Democratic paeans to free college and pre-K and occasional Republican denunciations of the Common Core and philosophy degrees" substituting for real conversation about education policy he has only fixed half the blame. Where Republicans are concerned, Hess is right: there is nothing of substance coming from them on the subject of education, efforts to divine what Trump thinks about educational issues out of the incoherent mess that comes out of his mouth notwithstanding. Trump's rivals for the Republican nomination—down to Cruz, Kasich, and, until recently, Rubio—have offered almost nothing of substance either. Cruz has spouted nonsense about Common Core and said little else; Kasich ought to be running from his education record as fast as he can. Rubio has never done much of anything period, let alone in the world of education policymaking. The one Republican candidate with a genuine set of ideas about education, Jeb Bush, was run off by primary voters decidedly uninterested in hearing those ideas. I guess that's to Hess' point. Republican voters, it seems, really don't care about education.

But on the other side there is substance, and it is revealing. Those "sporadic Democratic paeans" to affordable college and the importance of pre-k represent genuinely important positions of great interest to a very large number of voters. No one can argue that the college affordability crisis is not real, and anyone who has had small children, whether in a dual income family or not, knows how real the struggle to provide high quality child care is—to say nothing of the challege of ensuring that all kids enter school ready to learn, a longstanding policy goal that dates back to the first Bush administration as well as to Johnson's War on Poverty, if not earlier. These are both economic issues, but they are decidedly educational as well. The fact that Republicans refuse to pick up these issues and offer the country a legitimate debate on them only underscores the fact that the Republicans are simply out of ideas when it comes to solving problems that matter to people who aren't rich.

Realigning our vision to include the idea of free (or at least debt-free) college is not "socialism" any more than providing universal elementary and secondary education that is free at the point of delivery was. It's also no more or less ridiculous than the idea of sending a man to the moon or starting a Peace Corps—the very kinds of policy prescriptions Ahlstrom says he's pining for. The claim that the Democratic candidates are taking their marching orders from their union bosses is the kind of lazy non-analysis the gadflies accuse the candidates of. 

So what's going on here? Well, first, we have to recognize that the uneven quality of the discussion about education shouldn't be confused with the idea that no discussion is happening. Yes, it's true that the Republicans have little to offer on the subject; but it's also true that the Democratic candidates have engaged in meaningful conversation about issues like college affordability and the importance of committing to an education policy framework that actually improves our schools while respecting the fact that the policy discourse on education doesn't exist independently of other policy issues. In some ways, every issue comes back to education—and vice-versa.

Moreover, as I've mentioned before, both Clinton and Sanders completed a lengthy questionnaire given to them by the AFT; each provided detailed responses with their views on educational issues. Read them if you want more substance; there's plenty there. All of the Republicans declined to participate.

Maybe the explanation here is as simple as it looks: for Republicans, especially in this cycle, looking like you support the idea that people should have access to a high quality education is simply bad politics. Trump, ever gifted with the ability to say what everyone else in his party seems to be thinking but is unwilling to say, said it himself: "I love the poorly educated!" There is a debate going on about education, and it's going to have an impact on all of us. If you don't want to listen to it, don't listen to it. But ignoring it won't mean that it isn't happening.

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