Last night some of the candidates running for the American presidency’s Democratic party nomination debated each other. There were several problems with this debate, including the exclusion of Larry Lessig and the fact that someone allowed CNN to host it at all. Nevertheless the debate touched on education in a useful way.
Not having a tv, I watched and live-tweeted the first part of the debate at a local movie house (thank you, Marquis Theater), then followed the last part from a laptop as CNN fitfully streamed. For this post I’m relying on this Washington Post transcript.
Generally speaking, education reform was utterly absent from the discussion. That’s a major sign of change in the Democratic party, which has been a major driver in all kinds of reform (testing, school choice, technology, union-bashing, etc) for the past decade, as readers of this blog and my FTTE report know well. Implicitly and sometimes explicitly candidates held the current state of American education to be a good thing, the only problem being how to make post-secondary school more affordable, and how to get still more people onto campuses. That seems to follow the pattern established early this summer.
Let me pull out some details:
Bernie Sanders was the first to raise education as a topic, and did so under a social justice framework:
Today in America, we have more people in jail than any other country on Earth. African-American youth unemployment is 51 percent. Hispanic youth unemployment is 36 percent. It seems to me that instead of building more jails and providing more incarceration, maybe — just maybe — we should be putting money into education and jobs for our kids.
We need to combat institutional racism from top to bottom, and we need major, major reforms in a broken criminal justice system… (APPLAUSE) …[i]n which we have more people in jail than China. And, I intended to tackle that issue. To make sure that our people have education and jobs rather than jail cells.
Hillary Clinton* then turned to education, from a related but somewhat different angle:
[W]e’ve got to do more about the lives of these children. That’s why I started off by saying we need to be committed to making it possible for every child to live up to his or her god given potential. That is… really hard to do if you don’t have early childhood education… if you don’t have schools that are able to meet the needs of the people, or good housing, there’s a long list…
I’m not sure which population “these” refers to in this context: children of imprisoned criminals, children of color (she went on to call for, tantalizingly, “a new New Deal for communities of color”), or poor kids.
Then Clinton shifted approach, grounding education in terms of economic improvement, as a jobs and income growth strategy:
[B]oth Bill and I have been very blessed. Neither of us came from wealthy families and we’ve worked really hard our entire lives. And I want to make sure every single person in this country has the same opportunities that he and I have had, to make the most of their God-given potential and to have the chances that they should have in America for a good education, good job training, and then good jobs.
Then higher education finance arose. Sanders responded first by restating his plan to fund free public institution tuition by taxing financial transactions. He began by describing the growth of tertiary education in recent years:
This is the year 2015. A college degree today, Dana, is the equivalent of what a high school degree was 50 years ago.
And what we said 50 years ago and a hundred years ago is that every kid in this country should be able to get a high school education regardless of the income of their family. I think we have to say that is true for everybody going to college.
Later on he connected his call for a political revolution with his demand for free tuition, thusly: “If we want free tuition at public colleges and universities, millions of young people are going to have to demand it, and give the Republicans an offer they can’t refuse.”
Sanders also differentiated his program from Clinton’s: “I think we don’t need a complicated system, which the secretary is talking about, the income goes down, the income goes down, if you’re poor you have to work, and so forth and so on.” He also called out colleges and universities for their sticker prices: “I want colleges to get their costs down. They are outrageously high in what they’re charging.” Sanders didn’t follow up on that, nor did the CNN staff (which didn’t surprise me; when they speak in complete sentences I’m impressed).
Clinton followed by summarizing her plan for higher education, including free public campus tuition, more work-study, and loan refinancing. She described the plan as “comprehensive”, to distinguish it from Sanders’.
COOPER: …Governor O’Malley, and Senator Sanders, want to provide instate college tuition to undocumented immigrants. Where do you stand on that?
CLINTON: My plan would support any state that takes that position, and would work with those states and encourage more states to do the same thing.
COOPER: So, on the record, you believe that undocumented immigrants should get instate college tuition.
CLINTON: If their states agree, then we want more states to do the same thing.
Martin O’Malley agreed, then added an economic (and euphonious) incentive for pursuing such a policy: “The more our children learn, the more they will earn, and that’s true of children who have yet to be naturalized…”
Discussion of climate change gave candidates an opportunity to back research and development, which they barely did.
During final statements, two candidates called for more education or for better financing it. Lincoln Chaffee included “funding education” as one of his desiderata. Martin O’Malley expressed the hope that “we can actually… educate our children at higher and better levels”.
Final thoughts on the debate as a whole: Hillary Clinton’s goals were to reassure backers that she was viable, and to block a possible Joe Biden entrance. I think she accomplished those. She also reassured her wealthy benefactors by not calling for seriously taxing them. As a debater she was very good: fast, on point, speaking clearly, with dashes of humor.
Bernie Sanders won the stage as an inspiring and skilled orator. Nobody came close. He remained the leading leftist in the discussion, calling for massive popular political mobilization and charging against what he called (accurately) “the billionaire class.” His biggest weakness was the guns issue, which led off the debate; really, this is a Vermont thing. He also waffled on Snowden, which disappointed me: better than the rest, but not supportive enough.
The other candidates fared poorly, fading into near-invisibility and accidental comedy. But James Webb impressed me with the grenade line. Asked “Which enemy are you most proud of?” he responded: “I’d have to say the enemy soldier that threw the grenade that wounded me, but he’s not around right now to talk to.”
*I’m getting a bit tired of people referring to her as “Hillary”, when they use last names for other candidates. I understand the desire to differentiate her from Bill Clinton, but surely it’s not too hard to write or say “Hillary Clinton.” “HRC” might come into fashion, too.
This is related to the weird habit some people have of first-naming famous people they’ve never met, like Apple fans who used to talk about “Steve” (Jobs). Stop it, unless you want to own some creepy intersection between imaginary friends and near-stalking.