5 Thoughts on the Trump-Clinton Debate: Education Edition

I just spent an evening watching the first Trump-Clinton debate. I feel like I need a long shower. I don’t know about you, but I found that to be one of the least enlightening and most tedious Monday nights I can remember. Anyway, a few quick thoughts.

ednext-sept2016-blog-hess-trump-clinton-debateFirst, NBC’s Chuck Todd pretty much nailed it for me, observing, “This was the most abnormal event I have ever witnessed.” Bigger picture, I thought National Review’s Jim Geraghty summarized the state of things when he wrote, “Trump is crude and painfully ignorant of policy details, plays with racially incendiary fire, lies casually and effortlessly, offers the simplest and most unworkable solutions to complicated problems, and has lived a life of selfishness, petty vindictiveness, and greed.” Geraghty continued, noting that many Americans “see Hillary as more or less the same. She, too, lies casually and effortlessly. She has the more sophisticated policy positions but ignores inconvenient facts and counter-evidence. She’s unwilling to stand up to racial demagogues when they benefit her party. She’s every bit as vindictive toward those who have crossed her… and charged public universities six-figure sums to discuss the rising cost of higher education.”

Second, it looked to me like Clinton “won” the debate or, at least, that Trump managed to lose it. Clinton came across as informed and as (slightly) less of an animatronic robot than usual. Her team seemed to have studied the tapes from the GOP primary debates and knew that Trump could be baited into rambling defenses of his business dealings. Meanwhile, Trump sounded like the drunk at the bar, bragged about his temperament (seriously?), used words like “bigly” and “braggadocious” (calling Mary Poppins), and whined about Clinton’s “very mean ads.”

Third, education was almost entirely absent. Outside of a five-word Clinton throwaway mention of debt-free college, education didn’t make even a token appearance in the 45 minutes the candidates spent talking about “prosperity”. Amidst heated talk about foreign trade, taxes on “the rich,” Trump’s tax returns, birther-ism, Clinton’s emails, and more, neither bothered to raise K-12, higher education, or college costs. As marginal as education has been in 2016, I was still surprised that neither chose to go there. It’s a chance to play positive and send a signal about inclusive growth.

Education was almost equally absent when moderator Lester Holt turned to racial tension, civil unrest, incarceration, and policing. Clinton’s initial response mentioned schooling, but the candidates never returned to the role of education. In purely practical terms, that struck me as peculiar on a bunch of levels. Education is a way to talk about how to reduce tensions and offer more promising avenues. It’s a chance to talk of opportunity and responsibility. It’s a way to talk about promoting civic virtues and mutual understanding. And I was surprised that, in talking about the problems related to incarceration and urban violence, neither candidate cited the importance of prison education or prisoner reentry.

Fourth, I know reporters are working hard to parse what a Trump or Clinton win really means for education. But I’ll tell you what I keep telling education writers—it’s damn hard to know. For Trump, as best I can tell, policy is performance art. There’s no reason to believe he means what he says. So, when he tosses out the notion of $20 billion for school choice, I don’t think it’s more than a short-lived symbolic gesture. Meanwhile, Clinton has made rafts of promises regarding new regulations, programs, and spending, and it’s hard to know which of it she’s serious about.

The safest bet is that, especially post-ESSA, she’d back-burner K-12 to focus on new spending and regulations for pre-K and higher education, which has the added benefit of uniting Democrats. The thing, of course, is that her proposals would create fierce new partisan divides on those issues, and have trouble moving through what’s likely to be a Republican House. Would’ve been nice if either of them had seen fit to offer any more clarity on any of this in the debate, but so it goes.

Finally, while I’ve made this point many times, I’ll make it again: For the past quarter-century, schooling has played a significant symbolic role in presidential contests. For Republicans, education was a way to demonstrate sincerity when talking about an opportunity society. Absent meaningful educational opportunity, talk of liberty and personal responsibility can ring hollow. Thus, a pledge to leave “no child behind” became the signature of George W. Bush’s “compassionate conservatism” in 2000. For Democrats, education helped mark a break with the tax-and-spend liberalism of the 1970s and 1980s. By talking of “investing” in schools and colleges, 1990s Democrats argued that they wanted only to ensure that hard-working Americans had a fair shot.

In an election season where such centrist appeals seem quaint, education has mostly stayed on the sidelines. That hints at what’s ahead for education, but it also says even more about this race and the state of American politics today.

— Frederick Hess

Frederick Hess is director of education policy studies at AEI and an executive editor at Education Next.

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