Rick Hess: Education and the Election

Feb 11, 2016 by

An Interview with Rick Hess: Education and the Election

Michael F. Shaughnessy –

1) In general, education has not been mentioned very much during the current Presidential contest. Could this be due to concern over illegal immigration, our porous borders, Syrian refuges or the bombastic, vitriolic Donald Trump??

For most people, education is not as urgent as national security and the economy. At times such as these, when headlines are filled with stories of terrorism and stagnant wages, education faces a stiff headwind. Gallup’s December 2015 poll found that education ranked 13th when Americans were asked about the most pressing problem facing the US today. Back in 2000, when things were quite a bit calmer, Gallup found that education ranked first among all issues.

The rise of Donald Trump also certainly contributes as well. A dominant figure with no real ideological mooring, a can’t-look-away persona and a remarkable gift for tapping voter frustration, Trump has dragged the GOP primary far away from conventional policy debate. Talk about the particulars of social policy can sound dull and out-of-touch in the face of Trump’s eruptions. In face of that, it’s no wonder education’s been pushed to the sidelines this election.

2) I note that Ben Carson M.D. and Chris Christie, on their web sites DO have somewhat of a platform. But why do the other candidates not follow suit? Or am I missing something?

Education has generally been how conservatives show themselves to be compassionate and how liberals show they are practical and responsible. However in this election, candidates face intense pressure on the left and the right to demonstrate that they are ideologically reliable—and education is less helpful on that count. It may be that these candidates found that focusing on other topics would bolster stronger support from voters.

3) I guess the San Bernardino shooting, and the massacre in Paris has turned our attention to safety issues. Are there other issues that obfuscate the examination of education?

Different issues take precedence over education at different times. In 2004, the public considered the war in Iraq as one of the nation’s largest problems, a Gallup poll ranked it as the most pressing issue. In 2008, as the great recession set it 58 percent of Gallup poll respondents cited “the economy in general” as the most important problem facing America.

Even within the realm of education, different topics take on more prominence depending on concerns of the day. For example, as my colleague Andrew Kelly noted in Forbes earlier this year, higher education is taking the spotlight in the 2016 presidential debates at the expense of K-12. As the Republicans and Democrats both reached a consensus on a more limited federal role in K-12 and as the cost of college continues to rise, K-12 is dropping to the background and higher ed is taking the headlines. But as the cost of college rises, the importance of higher education grows.

4) In past elections education seemed to be a major part of the platform of various candidates. Is there no public outcry about the current state of education?

Though it may seem as though the public has been less worried about education this election, this is actually quite normal. In the past several elections, concern about education has tended to be candidate-driven rather than fueled by the public. For example, in 2004, 2008, and 2012, Bush and Obama spent a good amount of time talking about education, even when public concern on the issue was not high. Looking at those elections, education ranked in 15th, 9th, and 9th place respectively among issues the public listed as the “most important” facing the U.S. today—hardly the sign of top-priority problem. So it seems to me that education discussion on the campaign trail has less to do with a change in the public’s opinions, and more to do with the candidates’ platforms this season.

5) It would seem to me that Sandy Hook and Columbine should still be fresh in the minds of the populace- and that people would be concerned about school safety-or are they more concerned about illegal immigration?

There’s a raft of pressing issues that are fresh people’s minds. Certainly, one is gun control. But there are plenty of others, as well. For one of them to really pop, you need the passions of a party to converge on one solution to a problem. For Republicans on immigration, at least over the last year, the preferred solution has been to focus on halting illegal immigration. But on other hot button issues, people in the same political party can have very different fixes in mind. For example, Donald Trump once proposed that he would issue an executive order banning “gun-free zones” in schools. Now, that might not be the preferred solution for a lot of people I know—and I think it’d be regarded as laughable by nearly every blue-state Democrat. But as long as you have bitter disagreement about the Second Amendment and viable solutions, more granular proposals around school safety can get caught up in the larger currents.

6) Rick, you and I know about PISA and the other cross national and other comparative scores- but does the average Presidential candidate know much about these things ? Or do they just not want to discuss? Or are they more concerned about the growing debt?

For most of them, the answer is no. (There are obviously exceptions, such as Jeb Bush). But candidates are focused on everything from ISIS to marginal tax rates to cybersecurity—they’re necessarily generalists. They rely on advisors and staff to worry about a lot of these particulars, and only learn as much as they need for a particular speech, debate, or initiative. Thus, to the extent that candidates talk about something like PISA, they use it as a pivot to discuss their preferred policy fix. So, Democrats may have a throwaway line about PISA or TIMMS when talking pre-K, and Republicans may have the same when critiquing teachers unions—but none of this suggests any seriously familiarity with these tests.

7) ESSA—should it be discussed on the campaign trail?

Sure it should. A major bill was just passed by Congress, but what that law means in practice will be very much a product of the way it’s implemented by the Obama administration and the next president. When talking education, it’d be nice to hear how the candidates think the law should be interpreted and applied. Are they going to strictly respect the tight strictures on the Department, or are they going to huff and puff in an attempt to continue a broader vision of the federal role? How aggressive do they think Washington should be about trying to monitor state accountability plans? How enthusiastically will they promote the law’s flexibility and choice provisions? These are things it would be good to know.

8) I do believe Donald Trump has discussed dismantling Common Core because in his words (like so many other things in his world) …it is a “disaster “. Your thoughts?

I wouldn’t put much stock in Trump’s analysis of such things. For one thing, I’m huuugely dubious that he’s given the Common Core or American education much serious thought. At the same time, I certainly have significant concerns about how the Common Core has played out for students and schools.

Pursued on a practical (rather than a Race to the Top-inspired) timeline, in a dozen states, and with appreciation for the spirit of our federal system, it would have been a worthwhile endeavor. But I fear the reality has been otherwise, raising serious questions, poisoning bipartisan improvement efforts in many places, and opening the door to a lot of goofy instruction.

9) I believe it was 7 or 8 years ago when Obama talked about bringing a “world class education” to America. Has he really done that, or was it just empty campaign promises?

It was the kind of thing politicians say. It was empty talk. While many of the ideas Obama has supported are good ones—from smarter teacher evaluation to higher quality tests to addressing cost inflation in higher education—his administration has pursued them with an excessive faith in federal regulation, politicized timelines, and contempt for even thoughtful critics. The result has needlessly fractured the reform coalition and undermined support for many of these ideas For me, perhaps the key takeaway from Obama’s education legacy is that good ideas executed poorly can prove not to be such good ideas after all.

10) Who do you think is going to win the election?

Mike, I’m generally a lousy prognosticator, anyway. But this year in particular? I have no earthly idea. And I’m skeptical of anyone who thinks they do.

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