There has been no substantive conversation about K-12 education in the Democratic debates, town hall meetings, or candidate rallies. Perhaps that’s because Democrats want to walk away from the contentious education policies and practices of the Obama administration and focus, instead, on the many other noteworthy accomplishments of Barack Obama’s presidency.

Perhaps, it’s because the leadership of the two national teachers’ unions endorsed Hillary Clinton in the summer of 2015 so the votes of those concerned with education are assumed to be “in the bag.” Whatever the back story, we voters deserve to know what the candidates will do as President about the education of our children. What follows are key topics about K-12 education and what the candidates have said about them so far.

(The positions of the Republican candidates for president were examined Tuesday.)


No Child Left Behind was federal legislation that controlled K-12 education in the United Sates from 2001 to its replacement by the Every Child Succeeds Act in December 2015. With it, students’ scores on standardized tests were the only means of measuring student achievement and the worth of a school. It punished schools, based on test scores. All schools in the United States were required to reach 100 percent proficiency by 2014 or receive sanctions from the federal government, which meant the withholding of federal funds. Given the wide range of student abilities, including students with special education needs and students whose primary language is not English, 100 percent proficiency was out of range for almost all schools.

Bernie Sanders voted against No Child Left Behind. He explained,

I voted against No Child Left Behind in 2001 and continue to oppose the bill’s reliance on high-stakes standardized testing to direct draconian interventions. In my view, NCLB ignores several important factors in a student’s academic performance – specifically, the impact of poverty, access to adequate health care, mental health, nutrition, and a wide variety of supports that children in poverty should have access to. By placing so much emphasis on standardized testing, NCLB 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.

Sanders underscored his objections to NCLB by stating, “In my home state of Vermont, almost every school is identified as “failing” under the requirements of NCLB, despite that we have one of the highest graduation rates in the country, and students from Vermont continually score among the highest in the country on annual NAEP assessments.”

As a member of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions, Sanders worked to reform NCLB. He advocated reducing the high stakes nature of standardized tests by basing accountability on multiple measures of a school’s effectiveness. He recently championed a pilot program that allows states to implement innovative systems of assessment that do not rely on standardized tests. This pilot program, which he championed, became part of the Every Student Succeeds Act, the replacement for No Child Left Behind.

Hillary Clinton voted for No Child Left Behind in 2001 and cites that vote as an accomplishment on her website. It praises her for being “a key member shaping the No Child Left Behind Act.”  In recent years, Clinton has commented that the problem with NCLB was with its implementation. She advocated for continued reliance on standardized tests as a measure of student achievement.

Questions to ask the candidates are:

  1. What kinds of assessments do you think truly measure student achievement?
  2. Should standardized test scores be used in evaluating students, teachers, and schools?


Publicly funded and privately managed charter schools are funded with taxpayer money but are privately managed without transparency or accountability for how the tax dollars are spent and without the same oversight as traditional public schools.

Clinton voiced her support of publicly funded and privately managed charter schools many times over the years, including in Forbes Magazine in April 2015 when she said, “I actually do believe in charter schools.”

Then, in November 2015 at a South Carolina town hall meeting, perhaps due to pressure from the teachers’ unions, Clinton criticized charter schools when she said:

Most charter schools – I don’t want to say every one – but most charter schools, they don’t take the hardest-to-teach kids, or, if they do, they don’t keep them. And so the public schools are often in a no-win situation because they do, thankfully, take everybody, and then don’t get the resources or the help they need to take care of every child’s education.

At which point, Eli Broad, who had been a large contributor of hers, and Whitney Tilson, managing partner of Kase Capital and another large contributor, withheld their contributions to her campaign and to her super PAC. Bill Clinton and Hillary’s campaign manager met with Eli Broad and assured him that Hillary will support the expansion of charter schools. Broad then agreed to continue to contribute to her campaign.

Sanders voted for the Charter School Expansion Act of 1998. His position on charter schools has been difficult to figure out. In his response to the American Federation of Teachers questionnaire to candidates, he wrote:

I am strongly opposed to any voucher system that would re-direct public education dollars to private schools, including through the use of tax credits. In addition, I believe charter schools should be held to the same standards of transparency as public schools, and that these standards should also apply to the non-profit and for-profit entities that organize charter schools.

In that response, he leaves out the fact that charter schools, along with vouchers, take money from public schools.

During a televised town hall meeting in Cleveland, Ohio on March 13, 2016, Sanders clarified his position somewhat. He was emphatic about his support of public schools. He also said he supports public charter schools that offer innovation, insure diversity in the student body, and are not privately managed.

But he either did not recognize or did not explain that all charter schools, even if they are run for profit or are part of a corporate chain, call themselves “public schools” because they take public money. Sanders needs to articulate his position about the corporate financing of “public” charter schools. Perhaps, he did not acknowledge that “public” charters are privately managed because, in his home state of Vermont, there are no privately managed, publicly funded charter schools; school choice is among traditional public schools.

A difference between the two candidates seems to be that Clinton is involved with the corporate and philanthropic money that controls much of public education, and Sanders has not yet addressed in a public forum how corporate and philanthropic money is connected to public education. Both candidates need to discuss the influence of private money in public education with the voters.

Questions to ask the candidates:

  1. With shrinking state and local budgets, do you favor taking taxpayer money from the traditional public schools, which educate most of the students, in order to support charter schools, which educate a select population?
  2. What regulations would you put in place for charter schools in order to enforce transparency in terms of the use of taxpayer money and to insure the delivery of student services, such as special education?


The Common Core State Standards were written in secret by employees of testing companies, not by educators. They are not research-based, not internationally benchmarked, and not outcome-validated. States were coerced into adopting them in exchange for being released from sanctions imposed on them for not meeting the NCLB mandate of 100% proficiency.

The National Governors Association approved the standards, which were not yet written, in order to not lose federal money. Educators criticize the content and pedagogy. Five hundred prominent early childhood professionals, psychologists, and researchers issued a public statement that the Common Core Standards are harmful to young children, and the National Council of Teachers of English did not endorse them. The more teachers work with the Common Core Standards, the more they oppose them.

However, speaking in Iowa in 2016, Clinton said that the “Common Core started out as a bi-partisan effort. It was actually non-partisan. It wasn’t politicized.”  She either didn’t recognize or chose not to talk about the political bribery that led states to adopt the Common Core. She also said, “A testing system, based on a core curriculum, helps you organize your whole education system.” What she advocated is illegal; the federal government is prohibited from establishing a national curriculum.

 Clinton went on to say, “With Common Core, there wouldn’t be two tiers of education.” However, that is precisely what the Common Core produces. The first tier is for the children in elite private schools (such as the ones the children of Arne Duncan and Bill Gates attend) and for the children in affluent school districts. Elite private prep schools do not follow the Common Core, and affluent districts pay it lip service because teachers and administrators know their students will score well on standardized tests without test prep.

Both elite private schools and schools in affluent districts provide a curriculum of inquiry, critical thinking, and collaboration, which are skills needed for the 21st century. The second tier is for the children in impoverished school districts whose curriculum is reduced to test prep with the inadequate, outdated Common Core Standards because teachers and administrators fear repercussions from low test scores.

Sanders has neither endorsed nor opposed the Common Core. He voted in early 2015 against an anti-Common Core amendment that would prohibit the federal government from mandating or incentivizing states into adopting Common Core. This indicates that Bernie opposes a repeal of the Common Core Standards.

Neither Clinton nor Sanders has demonstrated knowledge of the content of the Common Core Standards. A full discussion of the Common Core Standards for Early Childhood, Language Arts, and Mathematics should be demanded of the candidates.

They should be asked questions such as:

1. Do you think it is developmentally appropriate for kindergarten to be “the new first grade” in order for children to meet Common Core Standards?

2. Do you think it is good that we are the only nation that limits the amount of literature read and asks students to read excerpts of great literature instead of whole books?

3. Do you think it is good for students to read without connecting the ideas they are reading to their own life experiences or to the historical and cultural background of the text?

4. Do you think that it is good that the Math Common Core Standards prepare students for community college but not for STEM careers?


Paul Thomas, a professor of education at Furman University recently wrote:

In addressing education issues candidates are likely to remain trapped inside the failed accountability mindset for reforming schools — one that privileges ‘standards’ and ‘tests’ as the central means of closing the infamous achievement gap. But there are better ways to approach what plagues us. Instead of focusing merely on ‘accountability’, presidential candidates should be challenged first to confront and then address the tremendous social and educational inequities that plague our public schools.

Although Clinton supports President Obama’s call for defined time limits for actually administering standardized tests, she still speaks of standardized tests as a way to end the achievement gap between the affluent and the poor.

She has said, “It is important to remember that testing provides communities with full information about how our low-income students and students of color are doing in comparison to other groups so that we can continue to improve our educational system.” Hillary Clinton must still think that mandating standardized testing will close the achievement  gap although 14 years of testing with NCLB has done nothing to close that gap.

Sanders, on the other hand, calls for alternate kinds of assessment and for improvement in professional development of teachers. He has said that he wants to promote creative learning by doing away with “fill-in-the-bubble” standardized tests, and, instead, evaluate students based on their understanding of the curriculum and their ability to use it creatively.

He further said, ” I think it is wrong to judge schools solely on the basis of standardized tests. We have to work on what criteria we really need…….We also want schools held accountable for factors other than test scores, including how they meet the challenges of students from low income families.

Questions to ask the candidates:

  1. Scores on all standardized tests correlate with family income so how will standardized tests help students in impoverished areas?
  2. Do you feel that there are problems with teaching to the standardized test?
  3. How will standardized tests assess the skills needed in the 21st century such as asking probing questions, collaboration, problem-solving, critical thinking, and effective written and oral communication?


Both candidates have commented on fixing the school-to-prison pipeline, but neither candidate has addressed the increasing segregation due to the lack of racial and economic diversity in charter schools. As the Civil Rights Project reported in 2010:

While segregation for blacks among all public schools has been increasing for nearly two decades, black students in charter schools are far more likely than their traditional public school counterparts to be educated in intensely segregated settings. At the national level, seventy percent of black charter school students attend intensely segregated minority charter schools or twice as many as the share of intensely segregated back students in traditional public schools. Some charter schools enrolled populations where 99% of the students were from under-represented minority backgrounds.

With the increase in charter schools since 2010, the percentage of students in segregated schools also has increased.

There is a large body of relevant research showing that charter schools, on average, don’t have an academic advantage over traditional public schools, but they do have a significant risk of leading to increased segregation. Sixty-two  years after Brown vs. the Board of Education, here we are in 2016 with segregated schools in our large cities.

Questions to ask the candidates:

1. What steps would you take to increase diversity in public schools?

2. How will you address the pervasive racial and economic segregation in charter schools?


Private money is currently affecting public education in three ways. 1) Private citizens are funding policy and practice for all U.S. schools. Bill and Melinda Gates paid hundreds of millions of dollars for the Common Core Standards, including money to the media to promote the standards as rigorous and cutting edge and money to professional organizations to implement the standards. 2) Rupert Murdoch has pointed out: “Public education is a $500 billion dollar sector”so there are countless efforts to privatize public education in order to make financial profit for venture capitalists and marketers. 3) Wealthy philanthropists, such as the Walton family (Walmart) and Eli Broad, are using their money to establish charter schools that drain money from traditional public schools.

Clinton has ties to many of the funders of the Common Core and charter schools. Bill and Melinda Gates are the largest contributors  to the Clinton Foundation and have been major contributors to Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaigns.  Clinton also has collected hefty speakers fees from groups which are involved in privatizing education. For example, she was paid a quarter of a million dollars in 2014 to speak at Academic Partnerships, a for-profit education company in which Jeb Bush held an ownership stake.

Sanders is running for President in order to prevent the influence of big money in politics and government. The oligarchy, which he opposes in government, is also in control of public education. Missing from the public conversation is his explaining the similarity of Wall St. money influencing candidates for public office and the private money controlling what should be the democratic institution of America’s public schools.

Questions to ask the candidates:

  1. How can our public schools remain a democratic institution?
  2. What will happen to our democracy if education is privatized and the public school system ceases to exist?

K-12 education is too important for silence. Candidates must address the topics and answer the questions. Voters are asking. And the children are waiting.

Ann Policelli Cronin is a consultant in English education for school districts and university schools of education. She has taught middle and high school English, was a district-level administrator for English, taught university courses in English education, and was assistant director of the Connecticut Writing Project. She was Connecticut Outstanding English Teacher of the Year and has received national awards for middle and high school curricula she designed and implemented.

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