Education policy has largely been a second-tier issue in the 2016 presidential election.
Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, the Democratic and Republican presidential nominees, have focused their comments and discussions mostly on issues like national security, trade, and an email scandal.
Still, in Trump’s case, education discussions have followed him as he remains enmeshed in multiple lawsuits filed by former students of Trump University that accuse him of defrauding thousands of customers with worthless classes on real estate and investing.
In any case, both Trump and Clinton have given some indication about the issues they would back in the White House.
Here’s where the candidates fall on the big education issues.
In September, Trump pledged to immediately invest $20 billion in school choice. The move signaled that the polarizing issue of school vouchers would be the cornerstone of his education agenda.
Trump’s plan would reprioritize existing federal dollars to establish a grant to allow children living in poverty to attend the school of their choice. Trump argued not only that the voucher system would help impoverished children enroll at quality schools, but also that a free market would improve the entire system.
While eligibility for vouchers varies by state, Trump promised to campaign nationwide and call upon individual states and cities to elect officials in support of school choice.
“If the states collectively contribute another $110 billion of their own education budgets toward school choice on top of the 20 billion in federal dollars, that could provide $12,000 in school choice funds to every single K-12 student who today is living in poverty,” Trump said at a campaign event in Cleveland on Thursday.
Clinton, unsurprisingly, is staunchly opposed to school vouchers, an issue that is cleanly split along party lines. GOP policymakers traditionally favor school choice, while Democrats claim it hurts public education. Clinton asserted this point in a message she posted to her website after Trump unveiled his plan.
“Trump’s proposal to apparently gut nearly 30 percent of the federal education budget and turn it into private school vouchers would decimate public schools across America and deprive our most vulnerable students of the education they deserve,” Clinton wrote.
Opponents of voucher programs argue that they siphon essential funding from already meager public-school budgets to other schools and at their worst are unconstitutional, as they can use taxpayer-funded vouchers to benefit religious schools.
Supporters argue that vouchers help disadvantaged students.
“Voucher programs largely help low-income middle-class kids – these are the kids that most need access” to quality education, Michelle Tigani, the communications director at the Center for Education Reform, previously told Business Insider.
Voucher policies typically have income restrictions that vary by state to ensure education funds truly end up with the families most in need. In Indiana, where Trump’s running mate, Mike Pence, championed numerous school choice policies, the 2016-2017 income limit for a family of four to receive the largest voucher amount was $44,955.
On the issue of charter schools, Trump and Clinton align. Trump unveiled his voucher proposal at a charter school in Ohio, and after the televised speech, he spoke with a group about his desire to increase the number of charter schools across the nation because, he said, “the traditional way, it’s not working so well,” The Washington Post reported.
Charters, which are publicly funded but privately run, are scorned by teachers unions – a constituent that has endorsed Clinton. The American Federation of Teachers, another teachers union that has endorsed her, also opposes school-choice policies. A supporter of charter schools since the 1990s, she must tread carefully on the issue now.
At an event for the National Education Association, the largest teachers union in the US, Clinton spoke positively about charter schools and was interrupted with boos.
Trump openly criticizes teachers unions, pointing to their stance against school-choice policies.
“Our public schools have grown up in a competition-free zone, surrounded by a very high union wall,” he wrote in his book “The America We Deserve.” He continued:
“Why aren’t we shocked at the results? After all, teachers’ unions are motivated by the same desires that move the rest of us. With more than 85% of their soft-money donations going to Democrats, teachers’ unions know they can count on the politician they back to take a strong stand against school choice.”
Trump has repeatedly blasted the Common Core State Standards. In a video he uploaded to Facebook in January, for example, Trump vowed to end the controversial nationwide education standards.
“Common Core’s a total disaster,” he said. “We’re going to end Common Core.”
He also frequently uses the Common Core as a launch point to talk about how poorly the US performs in education compared with other countries.
“Common Core is out! It’s out,” he proclaimed at a rally in February.
“You have Norway, Sweden, Denmark, China, you have lots of places. You have some countries you’ve never even heard of are ahead of the USA,” he continued, vowing to improve American education.
Though Clinton does support Common Core and the concept of national standards, she doesn’t talk about it often. That’s likely because the Common Core has grown so universally unpopular on both sides of the aisle.
Instead, Clinton has focused on the issue of universal preschool, as a way to ensure students in primary school and beyond receive adequate education to help the US compete on a global scale.
“Now, building an economy for tomorrow also requires investing in our most important asset, our people, beginning with our youngest,” she said at a campaign event in New York City. “That’s why I will propose that we make preschool and quality childcare available to every child in America.”
Clinton’s most vocal education agenda item is her college tuition plan.
“I’m a little different from those who say free college for everybody,” she said on NBC’s “Today” show in 2015. “I am not in favor of making college free for Donald Trump’s kids. I am in favor of making college free for your grandson by having no-debt tuition.”
Clinton’s plan would make tuition at four-year public colleges and universities “debt free” and would be calculated based on family income. Clinton’s proposal starts by making public college free for families that earn $85,000 or less annually, gradually lifting the threshold up to families that earn $125,000 a year by 2021. Community college would be free for all students, and interest rates on student loans would be decreased.
Clinton’s plan would also allow students to refinance student debt at current rates and would lower interest rates on future loans. Clinton previously proposed spending $350 billion over 10 years for the plan, and has moved that estimate up to $500 billion, in part by cutting tax deductions for high-income Americans.
One criticism of her plan is that the specifics are lacking and it’s unclear how she will make the plan a reality.
Trump has said very little about higher education, though he criticized the government’s role in student lending, according to PBS.
Still, there is at least some indication of Trump’s ideas about higher education via an interview Inside Higher Ed conducted with Sam Clovis, the policy director of Trump’s campaign.
Clovis indicated that Trump would fight Clinton’s proposal for debt-free college.
“How do you pay for that? It’s absurd on its surface,” he said.
Clovis also pushed back on the idea that community college should be free for all, indicating that the campaign already thought community colleges were affordable for all.
He also indicated that the campaign supported changes that would allow banks and colleges to consider students’ future earning potential when providing loans.
“If you are going to study 16th-century French art, more power to you,” Clovis said. “I support the arts. But you are not going to get a job.”
It’s unclear which of these ideas, if any, will develop into true policy proposals.