Every presidential election famously hinges, to some degree, on “the economy, stupid.” But the political skies have been alight with warning flares that education, mainly the province of the states, could be unusually consequential in next year’s race for the White House.
High-profile teacher strikes have spotlighted disputes over pay and policy. Meanwhile, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos darts relentlessly into the congested traffic of her own incompetence, whether it's her professed hostility to public education or fanatical devotion to the underwhelming idea of school vouchers.
With education polling among Democratic voters’ top priorities, the party’s candidates have stampeded to propose improvements not just at the college level but K-12 as well. Republican positions, meanwhile, lend themselves to concise summary.
Donald Trump appointed DeVos — enough said. Bill Weld, thus far Trump's sole challenger for the Republican nomination, signed bipartisan legislation while governor of Massachusetts that made the state’s schools among the nation’s best, and has called for scrapping the federal Education Department.
Some of the two dozen Democratic presidential candidates are sure to drop out of the race before the voting begins, so it doesn’t behoove voters to get attached prematurely to anybody as the prospectively "best" education president. But there are a few defining questions to consider to discern the sages from the saps:
How do we pay teachers fairly and ensure schools are in good physical condition?
The Reagan administration’s Nation at Risk report recommended “professionally competitive” salaries for teachers, the benefits of which are confirmed by experience. New Orleans, for example, staged a miraculous turnaround in its "failing" schools after Hurricane Katrina, in part, by raising pay. But teacher salaries have lagged of late, one of the factors driving recent strikes.
California Senator Kamala Harris says she’d give the average teacher a $13,500 raise by closing loopholes in the estate tax and raising it on the wealthiest 1% of taxpayers. That’s a better way to raise funds than mucking up the already complicated tax code with another loophole, as former housing secretary Julian Castro has suggested doing, with a new tax credit to give teachers annual raises up to $10,000.
What about charter schools?
Charters are like other public schools: Some are good, some are crummy. (DeVos is widely regarded to have screwed up Detroit's, which she helped to create and which have posted terrible math and reading scores.) Charters in New York, Boston, Denver, Florida, Texas and elsewhere have had notable success with disadvantaged students. I hope the candidates coalesce behind charter networks that demonstrate good outcomes for kids, but with teachers' unions generally hostile to charters, this is undoubtedly a battlefield.
Though the Obama-Biden White House was friendly to charters, Biden’s education plan is silent on them, calling instead for tripling federal spending on poor schools for teacher salaries, pre-K and things like Advanced Placement courses. Those candidates generally following Obama’s cue, include the better-known (Pete Buttiegig, Cory Booker, Beto O’Rourke) and some languishing in the “who?” basement, including Tim Ryan the congressman from Ohio.
Charters are like other public schools: Some are good, some are crummy.
As an aside, Weld’s Massachusetts reform law included charters. As a second aside, Bernie Sanders earns boos for advocating for a moratorium on increased funding for charter schools. (Harris is a long-time opponent of charters, too, according to the Brookings Institution).
How do we keep schools safe?
That question has acquired more tragic salience since my K-12 days in the 1960s and ’70s. The Trump administration suggested arming teachers, who overwhelmingly said "no thank you." They, unlike the president, are aware that even police officers’ accuracy with guns when responding to an emergency is less than 50%.
Democratic candidates wisely and widely have instead endorsed common-sense gun safety laws, including, for some of them, universal background checks that are supported by research and responsible gun owners. For quite a few, this wisdom has required flip-flopping from more gun-friendly pasts, including: Sanders, Ryan, Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand (NY) and Michael Bennet (Colo.), and Montana Governor Steve Bullock.
A recent New York Times story gave shout-outs for boldness to Eric Swalwel, a California congressman, whose mandatory buy back of military-style weapons is the Democratic fields' “most robust gun-control proposal,” and to New Jersey Senator Cory Booker, who proposes national gun licensing akin to applying for a passport.
Biden pledges gun safety laws like an assault weapons ban and would have Uncle Sam bankroll a doubling of mental health professionals in schools.
Voters will get additional guidance in coming months. Everytown for Gun Safety, founded by former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, is surveying all the Democrats and Republicans to designate “Gun Sense Candidates.”
These questions just scratch the surface, omitting, for example, such considerations as those candidates who support the eminently sound idea of free public university tuition. But children lacking quality K-12 schooling often don’t go to college, or else swell the ranks of its dropouts.