What the 2016 contenders have to say on education
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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 TrumpTrump: 'Haven't thought about' pardons for Mueller target Pence: Rocket attack 'proves that Hamas is not a partner for peace' Conservation remains a core conservative principle MORE and Sen. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzNunes on Mueller report: 'We can just burn it up' 18 state attorneys general call on Justice Dept to release Mueller report Lawmakers clash over whether conclusion of Mueller investigation signals no collusion MORE (Texas), have tended to be far less specific on education than the lagging, more "establishment," candidates.

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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 RubioTrump UN pick donated to GOP members on Senate Foreign Relations panel Nunes on Mueller report: 'We can just burn it up' 18 state attorneys general call on Justice Dept to release Mueller report 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 ClintonGraham: McCain 'acted appropriately' by handing Steele dossier to FBI Why Mueller's hedge on obstruction decision was a mistake Giuliani says news media treat Dems better than GOP MORE and Sen Bernie SandersBernard (Bernie) SandersJam-packed primary poses a serious threat to Democrats in 2020 Treason narrative collapses; who bears responsibility? Pence hits 2020 Dems for skipping AIPAC 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.