Hillary Clinton Finally Gave Us a Glimpse of the Education Debate We Need

Hillary Clinton speaks at a rally on April 4 in New York City.

Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Earlier this week, Long Island’s Newsday interviewed Hillary Clinton at length on a number of topics, including education. That’s something no newspaper has managed to do throughout either party’s primary, which has largely glossed over K–12 issues. Clinton’s answers showed her knowledge of those issues is vast and impressive. But the interview was still a disappointment.

In fairness, Newsday did manage to eke out something interesting by pressing Clinton to discuss the opt-out movement. That’s a particularly important issue for Newsday’s readers, since Long Island, New York, is a hot bed—perhaps the nation’s hottest bed—for opting out of standardized tests. Half of Long Island’s students in grades 3 through 8 choose not to take the tests.

For her part, Clinton has been pushing for stronger standards in education since she was the first lady of Arkansas, and has long supported the Common Core educational standards. While she admitted in the Newsday interview that adoption of the standards—specifically as they relate to testing—has been “disastrous,” she said she probably wouldn’t recommend her granddaughter opt out of those tests, adding, “we have to do a better job of explaining why a common set of standards is really in the interests of the parents who are opting their kids out.”

That last thought—that politicians should better explain the importance of tests—left opt-out activists annoyed. Diane Ravitch, the education-reform critic who is arguably the mother of the opt-out movement, called Clinton “tone deaf” on her blog.

But on testing, Clinton may not be making anyone happy. Hours before Newsday published Clinton’s interview transcript, Shavar Jeffries, the national president of Democrats for Education Reform, wrote a pretty severe takedown of Clinton’s statements over the last several days that children should be tested less—something Clinton then repeated in her interview.

“Unlike the phony debate about Common Core on the Republican side, this is an issue where the policies of the next president will actually matter,” Jeffries wrote in U.S. News and World Report. “And if Hillary Clinton acted to roll back what are already fairly minimal federal testing requirements, it would be to the detriment of our students, particularly poor and minority children, children of recent immigrants and students with disabilities.”

Clinton nodded to this critique in her interview, saying that testing had been a “demand” of civil rights groups and disability groups, so that data could show whether schools were appropriately educating all children. Those same groups still believe that today, and Clinton agreed that testing was necessary for this purpose—but she didn’t address how testing children less would help them achieve that goal.

While Clinton offered no substantial policy solutions during the portions of the interview concerning education, she at least underlined one indisputable fact: She knows more about K–12 education than any other candidate remaining in either party’s race. In a way that’s not saying much. Jeb Bush had clearer solutions, spelled out in detail, in his platform. Maybe they wouldn’t have worked, but at least they were there. Since his departure from the race, education journalists have had to make do with the candidates’ offhand education comments.

Even with her apparent depth of knowledge, Clinton left me unimpressed. Over a couple of winding answers to pretty clear questions from Newsday, Clinton managed to show how much she knows while simultaneously saying nothing of value. As she noted in the interview, she’s previously discussed her support of charter schools, national education standards, universal pre-kindergarten, and creative solutions to solving the achievement gap. She didn’t elaborate on her more interesting ideas, As she brings up often, she helped found Eagle Academy, a chain of all-boys charter schools. She says she’d like to see more gender-specific schools, especially for impoverished students, and she also mentioned “boarding schools for poor kids.” Not sure what that last one is all about, and Clinton didn’t explain. Nor did she say how the federal government could go about encouraging such things or where funding might come from. She doesn’t elaborate on any of this on her website either. Her issue page on K–12 education includes just a couple of basic bullet points and a 30-second video of her giving a bland speech while B-roll of smiling children flashes across the screen.

If it seems like I’m being harder on Clinton than I would be on the GOP, I’ll say what I told my particularly precocious high school students when I was teaching: “I’m harder on you than everyone else because you can do more than everyone else.” 

With the GOP candidates, policymakers, journalists, and teachers are resigned to the fact that the education debate will never go beyond the lie that the Common Core would magically disappear if Trump or Cruz were elected. But it doesn’t have to be that way on the Democratic side, where there are not just interesting ideas, but groups that might otherwise be allies who compete on issues like standardized testing. There’s more there to talk about. So let’s have it.