Democratic front runner Hillary Clinton seems adrift on how to lift the nation’s schools, a flaw that Republicans could exploit and could cost Democrats the White House in 2016.
As voters close in on their favorite candidates, Clinton is offering few specifics for maturing millennials, Latinos and swing voters – growing segments of the electorate who worry deeply about education and their children’s uncertain futures.
Campaigning recently in Keota, Iowa, Clinton declared, “I wouldn’t keep any school open that wasn’t doing a better than average job.” That’s Lake Wobegon logic in which everyone can be above average.
It’s not entirely Clinton’s fault.
President Barack Obama handed Republicans a huge win in December, repealing the thicket of federal rules called No Child Left Behind, while also gutting Washington’s authority to lead on education. He awarded governors control over teacher quality, curriculum, and performance hurdles set at 50 differing heights over which students must leap.
A contagion of parents opting out of state testing further divides Democratic allies – teachers, college-educated families and progressive business leaders – over how to rekindle past progress in raising children’s learning curves.
But rather than blazing a clear path forward, Clinton seems to bob and weave among polling results.
“Not every child is going to learn sitting in his chair taking tests all the time. Children need to experience music and art and physical activity,” she told a campaign rally in Iowa this month.
Nearly two-thirds of Americans polled last year reported that public schools place “too much emphasis” on testing.
Clinton was the first lady of Arkansas when a youthful Gov. Bill Clinton laid the cornerstone of the testing-and-accountability edifice that’s now crumbling. He convinced union chiefs – backed by employers sick over the uneven quality of graduates – that voters would reject tax boosts until teachers delivered a uniform curriculum and measurable gains in learning.
Obama would fortify Clinton’s tough love for educators by tying classroom instruction to easily tested facts, using pupil scores to drive teacher pay, and shutter lifeless schools.
But the president’s best-and-brightest advisers failed to see the rebel insurgency coming – parents and teachers who reject dreary didactics inside what they see as pallid classrooms. They protest the loss of art, music, literature and physical education from the school day.
Suddenly, tough love for schools is out, a new romanticism is in. And candidate Clinton echoes the hopeful vagaries of the New Romantics, rather than pressing forceful policy.
“We need to get it back to valuing every single child,” she said in Davenport.
As Democrats pull back from holding educators accountable for results, they risk alienating old allies as well. California parents lost a tool this month when Gov. Jerry Brown trashed a well-known achievement index, pleasing union chiefs while infuriating civil rights advocates who can no longer pinpoint listless campuses.
Sure, well-off families may cultivate their musical prodigies who author software while excelling at lacrosse. But will learning through play or blithely trusting local politicians ensure that teachers produce literate and close gaping disparities in learning?
Hillary Clinton does offer bold initiatives to backstop young families such as paid leave for parents of newborns and reducing the high cost of preschool. She ought to be equally precise and provocative in how she would elevate the schools.
Clinton could push to equalize spending among the states. Midwest voters in pivotal states may not know that Ohio and Iowa allocate just half the dollars per pupil as does New York. She might give incentives to top college graduates to enter teaching by relieving student loan debt.
The leading Democrat should clarify how she would hold governors’ feet to the fire when they fail to raise achievement. If conservative Republicans defeat Common Core lesson plans, state politicians eager to claim progress will simply lower the bar and inflate the count of pupils deemed “proficient” achievers.
In the vacuum left by Clinton, Republican candidates could gain the edge on education, a rare domestic issue on which they can brag of legislative success.
Voters eagerly seek better schools and a firmer foothold toward upward mobility for their kids. Until Clinton advances compelling strategies for elevating the schools, these voters will lose faith in the Democrats, as Democrats risk losing the presidency.
Bruce Fuller, professor of education and public policy at UC Berkeley, is author of “Organizing Locally” University of Chicago Press, 2015.