Twenty Democratic candidates debated over two nights this week about why they should be the party’s choice to take on President Trump in next year’s election. Five moderators asked questions for hours, but somehow, fundamental education issues were never raised.
Here are some of the issues that could have been topics for questions by moderators Chuck Todd, Rachel Maddow, Lester Holt, Savannah Guthrie and José Diaz-Balart:
- The United States has its most controversial education secretary ever, Betsy DeVos, who has made clear that her priority is not fixing public school districts but expanding alternatives to them. She also has, among other things, rolled back civil rights protections for LGBTQ students, rescinded Obama-era guidance to schools on how to deal with sexual assault on campus and taken steps to help the controversial for-profit education industry. What do the candidates think are her worst missteps, and how would they fix them?
- This week, a report was published describing systemic dysfunction in the Providence public schools in Rhode Island, including conditions that are unhealthy and unsafe for students and teachers. That underscored the truth that schools in low-income neighborhoods in America still have fewer resources than schools in better-off neighborhoods because of the role of property taxes in school funding. How would the candidates change the way public schools are financed in this country?
- Teachers in a number of states, including those led by Republicans, have staged strikes — sometimes in defiance of state law. They have protested issues including the underfunding of schools, low pay that forces some of them to take second and third jobs, and the effects that charter schools, which DeVos champions, are having on school districts. How would they address the teachers’ issues?
- Democrats, many of whom have been supportive for years of charter schools — which are publicly funded but operated privately, sometimes by for-profit entities — have suddenly started to pull back from that position. How do the candidates view the growth of charter schools, and what does that mean for the future of the school choice movement?
- DeVos and Trump are pushing a federal program that would allow all states to use federal money for private- and religious-school funding, and a battle is being waged in the states between forces that believe using public funds for religious education is unconstitutional and those who don’t. (The Supreme Court agreed Friday to consider a case that could deal directly with this issue.) Should public funds be used for this purpose?
- Republican and Democratic administrations have spent billions of dollars to try to close the “achievement gap” between low-income minority students and whites, but they have not seen systemic improvements because they did not focus on many of the most important factors that affect how well children do in school. What do the candidates think of Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama’s focus on high-stakes standardized testing, and should it be eliminated in schools? How do they think teachers and schools should be evaluated?
- DeVos and Trump have called for the elimination of the federal Education Department. What role do the candidates believe the department should play in education policy?
- So many students are coming to school suffering from the effects of trauma that there is a movement among some educators to try to deal with these issues by changing the environment in their classrooms and schools. Meanwhile, many schools have only one counselor for hundreds of students, if they have a counselor at all. Is it the federal government’s role to support teachers in this effort, and if so how?
One moderator did ask one candidate about one K-12-related issue. During a discussion about guns in America during Wednesday’s night debate, Maddow asked Julián Castro, a former housing and urban development secretary, about school shootings.
She said that they “seem like an almost every day or every week occurrence now” and “don’t make a complete news cycle anymore,” and then she asked: “Is this a problem that is going to continue to get worse over our lifetimes? Or is there something that you would do as president that you really think would turn it around?”
Castro responded by saying he would promote “common-sense gun reform” if he were president.
Some of the other candidates brought up education on their own in responses to different questions. For example:
- Former Maryland congressman John Delaney said Wednesday night in response to a question about how he would address income inequality: “We’ve got to fix our public education system. It’s not delivering the results our kids need, nor is college and post-high-school career and technical training programs doing that.”
- Rep. Tim Ryan (Ohio) followed, saying: “We need to start dealing with the trauma that our kids have. We need trauma-based care in every school. We need social and emotional learning in every school. Ninety percent of the shooters who do school shootings come from the school they’re in, and 73 percent of them feel shamed, traumatized or bullied. We need to make sure that these kids feel connected to the school. That means a mental health counselor in every single school in the United States. We need to start playing offense. If our kids are so traumatized that they’re getting a gun and going into our schools, we’re doing something wrong, too, and we need reform around trauma-based care."
- Sen. Cory Booker (N.J.) said expanding insurance options for health care is important in part because “kids who don’t have health care are not going to succeed in school.”
- Former vice president Joe Biden said on the second night that he proposes “focusing on schools that are in distress” and said he wants to “triple the amount of money we spend for Title I schools” and establish universal prekindergarten.
And of course, there was the contentious discussion about school busing that began when Sen. Kamala D. Harris (Calif.) challenged Biden on his opposition to busing to integrate schools while he was serving as a senator in the 1970s.
Yet, there wasn’t enough about education to even warrant an issue tag on the top of debate transcripts that news organizations published on their websites.
For example, NBC News offers an online transcript of the first debate with a list of eight topics that readers can click on to see what was discussed. Education isn’t one of them. The New York Times’ transcript of the second night has 13 subjects for readers to click on, none of them education.