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Candidates say little about K-12 reform

Education specialists increasingly say they are concerned that presidential candidates have said so little on the campaign trail about K-12 school policy.

Sure, Donald Trump's in several recent debates has made a factually challenged debate pledge to achieve major federal savings by eliminating Common Core. And Hillary Clinton vowed to send an "education S.W.A.T. team" specifically into Detroit.

But aside from that, observers say, the issue has slipped to the back burner  in presidential debates, with talk about immigration, economics, health care and national security taking front and center. And when K-12 education does get mentioned, critics say the comments pay little regard to reality.

Witness Trump's repeated assertion that the act of killing Common Core will play a major part of his plan to balance the budget. In fact, the federal government spends not a single dime directly in implementing Common Core, and arguably next to nothing even indirectly. Common Core costs are shouldered by states (42 and the District of Columbia), which make their own decisions about whether to adopt the standards for their students.

The publication Education Week several times has noted the lack of education talk in the election, and last month U.S. News and World Report ran a column by Andrew J. Rotherham, a national nonprofit education leader, headlined "A Campaign Issue Left Behind."

"Education [is] different than issues like guns, abortion or even taxes – where a single issue can drive votes," lamented Rotherham. "Presidential candidates understand this and respond accordingly."

With Ohio's John Kasich now the only governor left in a shrinking candidate field, some wonder if reform discussions, typically issues that are left to the states, may fall even more to the wayside as the debates and primaries continue.

Writing in February's Harvard Political Review, Joshua Florence argued for education's strong priority in the 2016 campaign. "Cable networks have devoted entire debates to economic and tax policy as well as national security, while briefly allowing one or two candidates to give short statements about their education plans. In a world where soundbites and two-minute clips from debates are imperative to the campaign process, substantive debate about education reform is often left behind."

Polls show Americans think education policy should be a local and state issue. In late December, Rasmussen Reports found that 21 percent of American adults said the federal government should lead educational standards while 40 percent said it was the state's role and 31 percent said education was up to local governments.

A February, 2016, Gallup telephone poll of national adults found education came in last when they were asked an open-ended question about "the most important problem facing the U.S. today." It stood in stark contrast to a 2000 Gallup poll, which found education the top issue during that year's election cycle.

Katherine Bathgate, co-founder of the Virgina-based education communications advocacy firm SchoolForward, calls it "disappointing," and "surprising" that education reform in particular hasn't had much airtime from from Democrats or Republicans.

She allows that an in-depth discussion on school reform policy doesn't fit nicely in the 45-second soundbites that typically come out of a debate as candidates try to nab valuable and memorable airtime before prospective voters.

"I don't think education is going to decide the primary nominee. It hasn't been a very large part of the conversation in the debates this far," said Bathgate, who observes that random questions have been posed to a couple of candidates but are never expanded to allow voters to hear from them all.

"I'm shocked that the moderators have not pushed on education more or made it more of an issue," Bathgate added. "There seems to be very little appetite from them to make education a more important feature of the conversation."

Michael Hansen, a senior fellow and deputy director of the Brookings Institution's Brown Center for Education Policy in Washington, D.C. observes that, in the primaries, candidates tend to steer clear because education reform tends to be divisive.

"Primary voters tend to be the most extreme parts of the party," Hansen said, pointing out that issues such as Common Core standards and high-stakes testing are the ones that nab the most attention early on. "I don't think they are going to the polls to have a nuanced conversation about education.

He added: "Jeb Bush was the most education-oriented of the bunch and we know what happened with Jeb Bush."

Higher education has received much more attention, especially with Bernie Sanders' repeated call to make "public" universities absolutely free for all students.

"I do see a lot of opportunity for education to come up but a lot of it will be around higher education — college financing, student loan debt, college access," Hansen said. "I think those are questions that could really be seriously addressed in further detail and where a president would have more influence in the near future."