Why the silence on education?

By Christine Cooke

by Christine Cooke, Education Policy Analyst at the Sutherland Institute
by Christine Cooke, Education Policy Analyst at the Sutherland Institute

Have you noticed what’s missing from this presidential election cycle? It’s not social media wars, parody, physical assaults, or other drama. It’s a substantial discussion of education.

In January one Slate writer wrote, “None of the [2016 presidential] candidates are talking about education. Like, at all.” The head of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools noted, “Candidates on both sides of the aisle have said distressingly little about K-12 education.”

The observation seems to be a fair characterization. Education doesn’t seem to be the biggest issue this election cycle. As of late January only one direct question had been asked about education during the Republican and Democratic debates.

So why have we heard so little on the topic of education from the candidates who may lead our country? And is this a problem?

According to an article written by American Enterprise Institute, 21 public interest polls taken throughout 2015 found that only 7 percent of respondents believe education to be the nation’s most important problem—this statistic came in February of 2015 and was the highest point that year for ranking education as the top issue. Additionally, the number of respondents believing education to be the most important issue fell as the 2015 calendar year progressed.

Perhaps a waning interest in education is part of a bigger trend. In 2000 education was the public’s top concern, according to Gallup. This year, the poll found that it ranks 13th. It’s possible that the shift just reflects current events. Right now, the top four issues attracting public attention in Gallup’s December 2015 poll were terrorism, dissatisfaction with government, the economy, and guns. Another possibility in the article written by the American Enterprise Institute is that the prominence of education in an election cycle has little to do with public interest and is usually candidate-driven for a campaign-related purpose. The article explains that conservatives use education to show that they are compassionate, and liberals use it to show they are responsible.

There’s also the Every Student Succeeds Act—a massive education bill intended to overhaul the unpopular No Child Left Behind Act. It was enacted just this past December, which may have pacified a desire to create sweeping education policy.

The more important question remains: Does it matter that we’ve heard so little on education policy from our candidates? Or is it a relief for those who believe that education is first and foremost a state and local — but primarily a parental — responsibility?

On the one hand, education is an extremely important issue that deserves attention. Many have concerns about plummeting student outcomes. Others nationwide have serious complaints about Common Core. This past fall excessive testing took the spotlight, with President Obama calling for a testing cap. Still others worry about freedom of speech on college campuses where trigger warnings have become more common. Any of these might prompt more discussion. For those who want to cut back federal intervention in education, hearing about a plan to do so might be of interest to them.

In truth, college affordability has gained a fair bit of attention. Crushing student loan debt is a serious problem that people from both sides of the aisle recognize — though tuition-free college certainly brings disagreements.

Yet, on the other hand, hearing fewer campaign promises with their federal programs, incentives, and requirements could seem like a win. History of federal intervention in this area has led to a great dissatisfaction with top down initiatives. For instance, there’s No Child Left Behind, with its impossible proficiency goals, unwieldy penalties, and the resulting waivers that led to the widespread adoption of the controversial Common Core. Even when accountability and transparency are the goal, federally mandated tests or merit pay have earned the disdain of many within the education community.

Utah’s recently finished legislative session dealt extensively with education issues like preschool, all-day kindergarten, student data privacy, compulsory education, testing, digital learning tools, and reducing federal intervention. Perhaps the state level is the right place to have these conversations. But while there may be good reasons for the lack of national attention and low poll numbers, we should be sure to give education the attention it deserves.


Christine Cooke, J.D., is education policy analyst for Sutherland Institute.

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