Education Discussions Disappointingly Absent from First Presidential Debate

Yesterday, I posted my wish list for last night’s presidential debate. It was admittedly unrealistic to expect the candidates to address my specific concerns, but I don’t think it was unfair to expect the candidates to talk about how we’re going to improve the situation for the 50 million children in the American K-12 public education system. Even so, I worried aloud yesterday that the candidates might completely ignore what I think is the most important domestic policy conversation in the United States. Sadly, those concerns turned out to be well founded.

If you missed last night’s debate, you can watch the whole thing here. If you’re more the reading type, you can check out the transcript here. Or, if you value your time and sanity, I can sum up the entire event with the following GIF:


There were many things about last night that I found disheartening. Chief among these was the near-total refusal to speak about K-12 education or acknowledge the power of education to help solve many of the problems the candidates were asked to address last night. Clinton brought up education tangentially when asked about how she would heal racial divides, saying:

Race remains a significant challenge in our country. Unfortunately, race still determines too much, often determines where people live, determines what kind of education in their public schools they can get, and, yes, it determines how they’re treated in the criminal justice system. We’ve just seen those two tragic examples in both Tulsa and Charlotte.

In making that statement, Clinton got close to saying what I hoped she would say: that the key to empowering minority communities is providing a fair shot at the American dream by assuring that every single student in the nation has access to a high-quality education. Futures should not be determined by zip codes, the income levels of someone’s parents, or the color of someone’s skin. They should be determined by fair competition, and that type of competition can only exist upon a foundation of fair opportunity. That opportunity begins with education. Unfortunately, Clinton stopped short of acknowledging this basic truth.

Outside of Clinton’s brief nod toward education, both candidates avoided any substantive mention of of the subject. Both briefly mentioned the importance of building new schools and/or investing in education, but that was it. As we know, education is about far, far more than shiny new buildings. It’s certainly about more than how much money we can throw at it. I was tremendously disappointed that neither candidate addressed the substance or importance of education policy in the United States, apparently content with the superficial notion of pumping a few (billion) extra dollars into the system. That’s simply not good enough.

I suppose I would have found the omission of any real education discussion less disappointing had so many glaring opportunities to have such a discussion not presented themselves. For instance, the candidates spent ages bickering about the loss of American jobs to overseas enterprises, but neither seemed willing to address the bigger question: Why are American businesses having trouble competing with businesses in other nations? To partially answer that question, the candidates could have mentioned that the American education system lags badly behind those of many other industrialized nations despite heavy spending on education. According to the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), the U.S. ranks 27th in math and 17th in reading among the 34 nations that make up the developed world. Yet only four developed countries spend more on education per student. Do we see that as a problem? If so, how might we begin to address it?

In fairness, there are lots of reasons companies could choose to move jobs overseas—cheaper labor and lower taxes chief among them. But shouldn’t any sensible approach to improving America’s ability to compete in the global economy include a discussion of providing the educational opportunities required to build a highly skilled modern workforce in a variety of fields? Shouldn’t we be talking about how we can create the kinds of educational pathways that will allow the next generation of Americans to unleash their full potential on the global economy? Both candidates spoke about creating jobs and encouraging the growth of business, but who will staff these new enterprises? Who will develop the entrepreneurial ideas and know-how that will lead to the creation of successful businesses? All of that, my friends—from plumbing to accounting to the production of computer processors—begins with a solid, effective education for every child.

Similarly, the debate lingered for a long time on the subjects of race relations and curbing violence in America’s toughest neighborhoods. Clinton talked about criminal justice reform, and Mr. Trump talked about stop-and-frisk policies (which are rather questionable in their own right, but that’s a discussion for another place). But neither candidate mentioned the relationship between education and incarceration, nor did they mention the fact that charter schools in urban environments are injecting opportunity into these communities and producing amazing results among minority students. There was no discussion about the fact that both public and private school choice can help reduce crime.

Neither Clinton nor Trump mentioned the fact that one of the key building blocks of healthy communities, civic involvement, is not being effectively cultivated by the U.S. education system. In fact, the system is failing badly to teach children about what it means to be an American citizen. As my policy friend Ross Izard wrote earlier this year, only 23 percent of eighth-graders in the United States are proficient in civics. That figure is 9 percent for African American students and 12 percent for Hispanic students. Is it any wonder huge portions of our population feel disillusioned and abandoned by the American political system? More to the point, can we really hope to address the divides in our nation without fully ensuring that every person understands and can meaningfully participate in our system of government? Once again, the solutions to this conundrum lie at least partially in the realm of education.

Overall, last night’s debate made it appear that neither candidate believes education is an effective lever for producing change. They didn’t seem to recognize the power of education—and specifically educational choice—to change lives, destroy poverty, drive down crime rates, strengthen communities, and help produce the kind of long-term prosperity we all want for our nation.  They were wrong. Education is not simply a feel-good subject to broken out for political points from time to time, it’s an incredibly potent tool that must be a part of any attempt to address our nation’s most pressing problems.

There are about six weeks left until election day. I sincerely hope both candidates will use that time to think about how they can support and promote the kinds of policies that will help the next generation of American students enter adulthood with the skills and knowledge needed to achieve earned success—the kind of success upon which this nation thrives.