The Democrats Give Up on Education Reform

Will they get serious about education?

Photographer: Joe Raedle

Neither Bernie Sanders nor Hillary Clinton is defending one of President Barack Obama’s most important legacies: education reform. Instead of taking on the teachers’ unions, as the president did, both candidates offer an agenda that amounts to spending more and demanding less. It’s not a winning combination.

Sanders beats the drum for his plan to provide free college tuition for rich and poor alike, yet remains virtually silent on how to improve failing elementary, middle and high schools. His campaign website provides explanations of his position on more than 30 issues -- but not K-12 education.

When asked about the issue, Sanders frames it as a choice between tax breaks for the wealthy and money for schools. But he surely knows that the U.S. already spends more on education than most other developed countries. If money mattered most in driving results, American students -- including those in poor communities -- would be leading the world. Instead, they are in the middle of the pack.

Clinton at least devotes more words to the issue on her website. She calls for implementing a law Congress passed last year, the Every Child Succeeds Act, which gave states more leeway in setting (and lowering) standards, investing in teacher training, and helping students with disabilities. In debates, she has hardly gotten more specific, calling for an “education SWAT team” to rescue failing schools.

During the 2008 campaign, Obama stuck out his neck to support merit pay for teachers. As president, he and his education secretary, Arne Duncan, created a program, Race to the Top, that gave states incentives to expand charter schools and hold teachers, principals and schools accountable for their performance. It was the most ambitious education agenda of any president in history, and union leaders hated most of it. In 2014, they even called for Duncan’s resignation.

But Obama’s and Duncan’s focus on accountability got swallowed up by middle-class resistance to testing and higher standards, and eventually they retreated. The Every Child Succeeds Act, which Obama signed into law, will make it difficult for future presidents to create state-based incentive programs such as Race to the Top, and it will allow states that lower their standards to escape federal consequences.

Republicans, too, have retreated from their commitment to accountability, albeit for different reasons. George Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act, however flawed, established the principle that the federal government has a central role to play in holding states responsible for student achievement. Donald Trump, Ted Cruz and John Kasich have all rejected that basic idea.

The past two decades have produced some encouraging gains in student achievement. Teachers are vital to this progress. But they are not the only constituency, or even the most important one, whose interests candidates should consider. If this generation of children is to succeed in the global economy, and if the achievement gap between the haves and have-nots is to continue shrinking, voters will have to demand better.

To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net.