What the 2016 contenders have to say on education
© Getty Images

After many months of fevered commentary, we're finally into primary season. This is the point when the presidential contest starts to come into sharper focus. Though the polls and debates suggest that education will have only a modest role to play in this tumultuous year, millions of families, students and educators have a very concrete interest in where the candidates stand on things like schooling, pre-K and college. Given that, it's worth taking a quick spin to see what some of the major presidential contenders have to say on education.

The Republicans

Key Republican themes this year include opposition to the Common Core, calls to shrink or abolish the U.S. Department of Education, and support school choice. The leading candidates, Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpDeWine tests negative for coronavirus a second time Several GOP lawmakers express concern over Trump executive orders Beirut aftermath poses test for US aid to frustrating ally MORE and Sen. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzPat Fallon wins GOP nomination in race to succeed DNI Ratcliffe The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by the Air Line Pilots Association - Negotiators 'far apart' as talks yield little ahead of deadline Wary GOP eyes Meadows shift from brick-thrower to dealmaker MORE (Texas), have tended to be far less specific on education than the lagging, more "establishment," candidates.


Front-runner Trump has nothing about education on his campaign website but has declared that he's "totally against Common Core." He also said last fall on "Fox News Sunday" that he'd consider abolishing the Department of Education.

Cruz also doesn't mention education on his website, but, like Trump, has said many times that he'd like to abolish the Department of Education. Cruz has denounced the Common Core, calling for its repeal and insisting that "we need to get the federal government out of the business of dictating educational standards." Cruz is also an ardent supporter of school choice, labeling it "the civil rights issue of the next generation."

Sen. Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioPPP application window closes after coronavirus talks deadlock  The Hill's Campaign Report: US officials say Russia, China are looking to sow discord in election US intelligence says Russia seeking to 'denigrate' Biden MORE (Fla.) promises on his campaign site that, "On Day One, Marco will issue an executive order directing federal agencies to stop any and all activity related to implementing or encouraging Common Core." His campaign also vows to decrease federal government involvement in education and promotes the senator as a strong supporter of school choice. On higher education, Rubio calls for making information more accessible for students and parents. Rubio also backs reforms to loan repayment and wants to promote innovation in the higher-education sector by establishing a new accrediting agency.

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush has spent many years tackling education as a governor and education advocate. Bush, who has generally been regarded as a strong advocate of the Common Core, has downplayed the issue. He does prominently propose allowing families to turn existing 529 plans into tax-free, lifelong Education Savings Accounts that could be used for early-childhood programs through mid-career retraining. On early education, Bush would "allow states to give funds directly to parents and let them choose the type of education that their children actually need." Bush endorses charter school expansion, supports the Washington, D.C. Opportunity Scholarship program, and also calls for "rewarding top teachers in a state's lowest performing schools and creating individual training accounts that teachers can use to further their own profession." In higher education, Bush champions innovation, transparency and student loan system reform.

The Democrats

The major Democratic candidates, former Secretary of State Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonBlumenthal calls for declassification of materials detailing Russian threat to US elections Hillary Clinton roasts NYT's Maureen Dowd over column Hillary Clinton touts student suspended over crowded hallway photo: 'John Lewis would be proud' MORE and Sen Bernie SandersBernie SandersThe Memo: Trump team pounces on Biden gaffes The Hill's Campaign Report: US officials say Russia, China are looking to sow discord in election Warren urges investment in child care workers amid pandemic MORE (I-Vt.), have talked about a very different set of concerns than the Republicans, tending to focus much more on federal spending to make college free (or nearly so) and to provide more pre-K.

Clinton has long been involved with education policy, going back to her years as first lady in Arkansas, so it's no surprise her campaign has a lot to say on the subject. On higher education, Clinton's website proposes a "New College Compact," which will offer free tuition to community-college students and ensure that in-state public college students can afford tuition, books and fees without borrowing money. The plan "will cost around $350 billion over 10 years — and will be fully paid for by limiting certain tax expenditures for high-income taxpayers." On K-12, Clinton says that the new Every Student Succeeds Act "is not perfect" but does give states and teachers needed flexibility when ensuring school accountability. On early childhood, Clinton calls to double investment in Early Head Start and related programs, and promises that new federal funding will mean that "every four-year old in America has access to high-quality preschool in the next 10 years."

Sanders focuses intently on university cost. His campaign website declares that "It's Time to Make College Tuition Free and Debt Free" in six all-caps steps. These include "STOP[PING] THE FEDERAL GOVERNMENT FROM MAKING A PROFIT ON STUDENT LOANS" and "SUBSTANTIALLY CUT[TING] STUDENT LOAN INTEREST RATES." Sanders promises that the $75 billion per year plan will be "fully paid for by imposing a tax of a fraction of a percent on Wall Street speculators who nearly destroyed the economy seven years ago." Sanders has observed on Facebook that, "Something is very wrong when, last year, the top 25 hedge fund managers earned more than the combined income of 425,000 public school teachers."

At the moment, Democrats are mostly talking free college and the Republicans about opposing the Common Core, slashing the U.S. Department of Education and expanding school choice. Not a bad summary of a polarized, policy-lite campaign season. Things may change as the election season progresses, but this is where we stand today in a tumultuous, vitriolic race that no one currently expects to turn on nuanced questions of education policy.

Hess is director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI). Hamilton is a research assistant at AEI.