Cue the GOP Debates: Three Ways Education Issues Could Spark Prime-Time Drama

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After months of seemingly endless candidate announcements, the Republicans will hold their first two debates Thursday evening, perhaps the surest sign yet that the presidential election has begun in earnest.
Ten of the 17 candidates (Jeb Bush, Ben Carson, Chris Christie, Ted Cruz, Mike Huckabee, John Kasich, Rand Paul, Marco Rubio, Donald Trump and Scott Walker) made the Tuesday cut to appear in the 9 p.m. Fox News debate; the remaining seven candidates will participate in an hour-long debate earlier in the evening. (Check out The Seventy Four’s “Presidential Baseball Cards,” where we summarize the education platforms of all 22 current candidates)
There will be a lot of ground to cover in the main event — and a lot of candidates trying to get their voice into the fray. Even limiting the speaking roster to 10 candidates means minimal time for each candidate to get his message to the voters. (The Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza estimated each candidate would speak for a little over 10 minutes if each gets an equally allotted time, never a likely scenario in a format where participants speak over one another, and especially not when Donald Trump is present.)
Although moderators are likely to begin with such hot-button news topics as defunding Planned Parenthood, fighting the Islamic State and reversing the 2010 health care law, here are three ways education could easily stir up the prime-time fracas:
1. Killing Common Core
Should education come up at either Thursday gathering, the most likely focal point will be the Common Core. It’s one of the two key issues (along with immigration) often used by Jeb Bush’s opponents to differentiate themselves from the former Florida governor.
Several candidates, including Chris Christie, Bobby Jindal and Mike Huckabee, supported the standards before recently changing their mind. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s views on the standards have also changed; his campaign says that he’s fought to allow individual districts to make their own decision.
Billionaire Donald Trump, no stranger to controversy in the last few weeks, recently has gone after both Walker and Bush on this very point, calling Bush’s support of the Common Core “pathetic” and saying the former Florida governor is “in favor of Washington educating your children.”
Trump later said that the Wisconsin schools are “a disaster … the hospitals and education was a disaster. And he [Walker] was totally in favor of Common Core!”
Even those who support the standards – Ohio Gov. John Kasich is the only other candidate who has done so consistently – are likely to now say they oppose any federal requirement or incentive for their adoption. That could provide a nice opening to attack what the GOP calls the Obama administration’s “overreach” into the country’s schools.
2. Shrinking the DOE
The Department of Education is a frequent target in GOP discussions of reducing the size of the federal government.
Conservatives often point out that there is no mention of education in the Constitution (and therefore no role for the federal government) and that there was no federal department until the late 1970s. (Its functions were previously housed under what is now the Department of Health and Human Services.)
Both Rand Paul and Ted Cruz have proposed eliminating the Education Department (which would require an act of Congress) and either ending federal K-12 funding or block-granting it to states to use as they please.
Rick Perry famously named the Education Department, along with the Commerce Department, as two of the three departments he’d eliminate during a debate ahead of the 2012 election. (He couldn’t remember the third – the Department of Energy – and was lampooned for it on Saturday Night Live.)
3. Public Unions at the Supreme Court
Moderators may also ask candidates their philosophies on appointing new justices to the Supreme Court.
Although they’re more likely to discuss judicial appointments in the context of abortion, there are several high-profile cases now pending at the court that could upend the education world.
One major case, Friedrichs vs. California Teachers Association, could overturn state laws requiring teachers and other public employees to pay union dues even if they disagree with the labor groups. Given Walker’s high-profile battles with Wisconsin’s unions, don’t be surprised if a Friedrichs question gets tossed his way.
Discussion of the Supreme Court could also raise the topic of affirmative action. Although the issue will likely be raised in the context of higher education as the court hears another appeal from Abigail Fisher, a white woman denied admission to the University of Texas, the outcome could easily affect elementary and secondary schools, too.
While education may only be discussed briefly Thursday night, six of the gathered political leaders have already pledged to go in depth on key education issues at the Aug. 19 New Hampshire Education Summit, hosted by The Seventy Four and sponsored by the American Federation for Children. The event will be livestreamed at The74Million.org.
Photo by Getty Images

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