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What U.S. public education might look like with a Clinton or Trump presidency

Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump and Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton speak during the second presidential debate at Washington University in St. Louis, on Oct. 9, 2016. (AP Photo/John Locher)

Education policy has received little attention in a 2016 White House race that has been dominated by debate about immigration, terrorism, foreign policy and presidential temperament. And yet in their public statements, and now in responses to questions from The Washington Post, the two major-party candidates have offered vastly different visions for the nation’s public schools.

Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton has sidestepped some of the polarizing Obama-era policies that drew backlash from teachers, emphasizing that she wants to improve education by offering universal preschool nationwide, reforming school discipline and investing in expanded computer science offerings. Republican nominee Donald Trump, on the other hand, has repeatedly criticized the nation’s education system as failing, saying that U.S. students demonstrate poor achievement given how much the nation spends on schools.

The Washington Post asked Clinton, Trump for their education vision. Here’s what they said.

Trump has said he wants to minimize the footprint of the federal government on public schools, shrinking or eliminating the Education Department. He has said he would jettison the Common Core State Standards — something the president cannot do, since academic standards are adopted at the state level.

And he has said, in his most detailed education proposal to date, that he would seek to improve education by diverting money from public schools that serve low-income children to vouchers that families could use to pay for private schools.

Trump pitches $20 billion education plan at Ohio charter school that received poor marks from state

Trump has proposed sending $20 billion to the states to do so and using the bully pulpit of the presidency to persuade state lawmakers to devote another $110 million to vouchers nationwide, so that children living in poverty would each receive a voucher of $12,000 per year — a considerable amount, if far less than the cost of elite private and parochial institutions.

Expanding school choice and allowing students to take federal dollars with them to private or parochial schools — called “portability” — is very much in line with the Republican platform. But it’s not clear where Trump would find the $20 billion in the federal budget, but it’s a considerable amount: The nation currently dedicates just $15 billion to low-income children through the federal Title I program.

It’s also not clear where Trump stands on issues of inequitable school funding, teacher evaluations, standardized testing, early-childhood education, school accountability, and discipline. The Washington Post asked both presidential campaigns a series of questions on those issues and others, and the Trump campaign declined to answer, instead directing voters to Trump’s website and providing a brief statement:

“As your President, I will be the nation’s biggest cheerleader for school choice. I want every single inner city child in America who is today trapped in a failing school to have the freedom – the civil right – to attend the school of their choice. I understand many stale old politicians will resist. But it’s time for our country to start thinking big once again. We spend too much time quibbling over the smallest words, when we should spend our time dreaming about the great adventures that lie ahead.”
At a campaign stop on Sept. 8 in Cleveland, Ohio Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump pitched his $20 billion education plan. (Video: The Washington Post)

Clinton provided answers to each of The Post’s questions, though she declined to say directly where she falls on some of the more controversial issues of the day, including whether teachers should be evaluated based on test scores of their students, whether states should limit the number of charter schools within their borders and whether parents should be allowed to opt their children out of standardized tests.

But those issues and many others, as Clinton has pointed out, are now in the hands of state officials thanks to the passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act, the successor to No Child Left Behind, which passed last year and shifted much authority over education from the federal government back to the states.

In contrast with Trump, Clinton sees an important role for the Education Department, saying in her answers to The Post that it has historically protected disadvantaged students and should continue to do so. She supports Common Core, though said she has been disappointed with its implementation, and opposes vouchers, calling Trump’s voucher proposal “dangerous” for draining resources from public schools and sending them to private schools that don’t have to adhere to the same standards and don’t have the same legal obligation to serve all students.

If Trump says he wants to improve education by giving children an escape hatch from public schools, then Clinton says she wants to improve public schools by making them work better. Trump’s opponents says his approach would demolish public schools, and Clinton’s opponents say her approach would continue the nation on a path that has so far failed to produce results for the most disadvantaged kids.

Clinton wants to direct new resources to schools to offer computer science classes for all students. She wants to continue and extend an Obama administration push to overhaul school discipline policies, creating “school climate support teams” of social workers and behavioral health specialists to help schools craft approaches to decrease suspension rates and end the so-called school-to-prison pipeline.

Here's what changes Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton says need to be made to the education system in the United States. (Video: Reuters)

And, a longtime supporter of early-childhood education, she has spoken frequently and forcefully about her promise to offer public preschool to all four-year-olds. “I’ve been guided by a strong belief, backed by rigorous research, that what happens in the early years has a profound effect on a child’s well-being and success in school and life,” she wrote in response to The Post.

Trump has offered a plan to subsidize child care through tax credits, but has said little about preschool and its relationship to K-12 education. In October 2015, as the GOP primary season ramped up, Fox Business Network asked him to comment on Clinton’s proposal to offer free Pre-K to all.

“Well, I don’t like it because eventually you’re going to have to raise everybody’s taxes,” Trump told Fox. “There is no such thing as free. You’re going to have to raise taxes.”

In her responses to The Post’s questions, Clinton said Trump is out of step with members of his own party on the issue. “There’s actually bipartisan agreement on the need to invest in preschool and provide our children the opportunity to get off to a strong and healthy start,” she wrote.

Though Clinton has embraced the Obama legacy on many fronts, she has worked to distance herself on education. Obama’s support for charter school expansion and for evaluating teachers based on test scores drew a huge backlash from teachers unions, and from some parents, who blamed the administration for stoking a mania for standardized testing that transformed schools for the worse. Clinton has instead embraced unions, promising teachers a “seat at the table” in her administration.

Teachers cheer Clinton for stance on testing and pay, but boo her embrace of charter schools

The Obama administration has acknowledged its role in contributing to an overemphasis on testing and has called for change. And Clinton agrees, saying that the nation needs “better, fewer and fairer tests.”

“I share the frustration that many teachers and parents feel about tests,” she wrote to The Post. “Too much time is being spent on test preparation, which means children are often missing out on the most valuable experience in the classroom: A teacher who sparks a student’s curiosity and love for learning.”

Clinton has offered a nuanced perspective on charter schools, one that has not entirely pleased either charter critics or advocates. She has criticized charters for failing to educate the “hardest-to-teach kids,” but also says that successful charter schools hold important lessons for other schools to copy.

“We should hold charters to the same standards, and the same level of accountability and transparency, as traditional public schools,” she wrote to The Post.