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Hillary & Bernie Do Vegas: Expect a Lot About Student Loans, Little on Common Core, at Dem Debate

By Carolyn Phenicie | October 13, 2015

After two sets of fiery Republican debates, only one of which had any real, if limited, discussion of education issues, it’s the Democrats turn to engage voters and spar with one another.
There isn’t an education issue that divides the top-tier Democrats the way Common Core splits Republicans (Jeb Bush and John Kasich vs. the rest of the field.) The top three candidates, Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, and Martin O’Malley, agree that there should be more public support of pre-school programs, that college is too expensive, and that taxpayer dollars shouldn’t go to voucher or education savings account programs that parents could use to help pay for private school, tutoring or other educational expenses.  
Clinton has already earned the endorsement of the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association, though it looks like, in both cases, there was some dissent in the ranks from those who preferred the more staunchly liberal Sanders, a self-described “democratic socialist.”
Less is known about the education views of Lincoln Chafee and Jim Webb, both of whom also served in the U.S. Senate and are running for the Democratic nomination.
Chafee, who entered public office as a Republican and served as governor of Rhode Island as an Independent, oversaw implementation of a Race to the Top grant, backed former state education chief Deborah Gist’s often-contentious policies, and won federal dollars to expand early childhood education. His campaign website lists expanding Head Start and implementing full funding for special education as his only K-12 education issues of note.
Webb, a longtime military leader, doesn’t list any education issues on his campaign website at all.
(Check out all the declared candidates’ presidential baseball cards.)
Here’s four issues — three big and one just a centimeter small — that could come up at the debate.
1. NO CHILD LEFT BEHIND — It’s the K-12 issue on the forefront in Congress, and there are some differences among the candidates. Clinton and Chafee, then members of the Senate, supported the bill in 2001; Sanders, then a member of the House, voted no.
He told the AFT in a questionnaire that NCLB “ignores several important factors in a student’s academic performance” like poverty, health care, and nutrition.
“By placing so much emphasis on standardized testing, No Child Left Behind ignores many of the skills and qualities that are vitally important in our 21st century economy, like problem solving, critical thinking, and teamwork, in favor of test preparation that provides no benefit to students after they leave school,” he said in the questionnaire.
Clinton and O’Malley in their AFT questionnaires also said the law put an inappropriate focus on testing. Clinton argued that Congress needs to find the right balance between the pros of testing (providing an understanding of how kids are learning, particularly for low-income students and children of color) and the cons (over-testing and a focus on test prep.)
O’Malley said test score data “should not be used as a hammer at the end of a teacher’s evaluation, it should be used from the start to begin an instructional improvement process.”
2. HIGHER EDUCATION — There’s over $1 trillion outstanding in student loan debt, and addressing the issue appeals to a key Democratic constituency: young people. The top three candidates have discussed it in depth, and all argue for lowering federal student loan rates and allowing existing borrowers with older loans to refinance at the current lower rates. They differ, though, on how much college should cost.
Clinton has offered what she’s calling the New College Compact, which would provide for two years of free community college (an idea President Obama introduced on the national stage this winter) and grants to allow students to attend four-year public schools without borrowing to pay for tuition. Sanders would provide free tuition at four-year public schools.
As the group Education Reform Now points out, Clinton’s plan would more directly target the people least able to pay tuition, while Sanders’s would be a universal benefit. They’d both pay for it by hiking taxes on the wealthy in some fashion: Clinton proposes closing tax loopholes for the wealthy, while Sanders wants a “Robin Hood tax” on investment firms, hedge funds and “other speculators.”
O’Malley (who revealed early on in the campaign that his family has almost $340,000 in student loans, mostly Parent PLUS loans he and his wife took out to help their two daughters) would call for an immediate freeze on public tuition rates and then tying tuition to a state’s median income.
3. PRESCHOOL There’s little daylight between the Democrats on this issue, but the candidates or moderators may raise it as a way to draw a distinction between the parties. Republican governors have backed expansion of state pre-K initiatives, but those in Washington and the party candidates have largely been skeptical of the need for new federal programming.
Clinton called for all four-year-olds to be enrolled in high-quality preschool in 10 years. Her campaign says this builds on Obama’s Preschool for All proposal, which would aim to expand access to publicly funded programs for four-year-olds in families making up to 200 percent of the poverty level, about $48,500 for a family of four. Democrats attempted to add a similar proposal to the No Child Left Behind rewrite this summer, but it was defeated along party lines.
Clinton has been involved in the issue for decades, helping to bring the Home Instruction for Parents of Preschool Youngsters (HIPPY) program to Arkansas when her husband was governor. The Clinton Foundation has its own early learning effort, Too Small to Fail, which helps fund research and inform parents about specific actions they can take to help their young children learn and develop.
That isn’t to say the others have been resting on their preschool laurels.
Sanders has introduced bills to provide universal childcare and education from the age of six weeks until kindergarten, and was one of the original co-sponsors of Democrats’ big push on preschool in 2014.
O’Malley can cite expansions of Maryland’s preschool program for children from low-income families, and has said there should be universal, full-day preschool.
4. THE METRIC SYSTEM — Should the CNN moderators turn to a more lighthearted question like they did last time, they could address the 6800-kilogram (that’s 7.5 tons, for our non-metric readers) elephant in the room: Chafee’s plank to convert to the metric system.
During the announcement of his presidential campaign in June, Chafee said the country should be “bold” and convert, CNN reported. Liberia and Myanmar are the only other nations that don’t use the metric system. It has been legal to use the metric system in the United States since the 1860s, but despite that law and subsequent pushes as recently as the late 1980s, the country has largely stuck with the Imperial system, according to CNBC.
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