Clinton and Sanders on Education: Where Do They Stand?

March 9, 2016

By Amy Auletto

The 2016 presidential primary elections are well underway and Democratic candidates Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders are in a close race. Yesterday was Election Day in Michigan and the state was a big focus for both candidates. Two days prior to Michigan’s primary election day, Clinton and Sanders participated in their seventh debate in Flint, Michigan. While education was not at the forefront of this debate, several topics – including teacher unions, early childhood education, and postsecondary education – were discussed.

Clinton: “…what we have got to do is provide more opportunities earlier in the lives of every child.” 

Photo Courtesy of Wikipedia

Photo Courtesy of Wikipedia

Clinton presented a number of her views on education. She reiterated her support for universal pre-school and early childhood education. Clinton also said she would use “every legal means” at her disposal to fight against emergency management in Detroit and to return the schools to community members, arguing that emergency management has made things worse for the city. Additionally, Clinton said she wanted to set up a coalition of educators (a “SWAT team”) within the Department of Education to help in situations such as Detroit. She expressed concern about teacher shortages in hard-to-staff districts and advocated for federal policies to help. Clinton was also directly asked whether she thinks unions protect bad teachers. She did not agree with this and instead cited her endorsements by the AFT and the NEA, criticizing those who place all the blame on teachers working in difficult circumstances.

Sanders: “…it’s not just infrastructure, it is education. Detroit’s public school system is collapsing.”

Photo Courtesy of Wikipedia

Photo Courtesy of Wikipedia

Sanders spoke to some of the same issues as Clinton in the area of early childhood education. He said that there is a lack of investment in this area and that some childcare workers are “making McDonald’s wages.” However, the main focus of Sanders’ education answers was his plan for tuition-free college. He emphasized that many young people are unable to attend college due to the cost, and he argued for wealthier individuals to pay their fair share of taxes so that every child could receive a quality education. Sanders also cited the fact that 51% of young African Americans are unemployed and stated that jobs and education are a solution to this issue, rather than incarceration.

Pushing Back

On the surface, both Clinton and Sanders appear to have positive plans for education. Both seem to approach the issue with an awareness of the issues and a concern for the success of our most vulnerable students. However, Clinton’s support of teacher unions as a means to protect teachers from blame and scape-goating as well as Sander’s plan to provide tuition-free college may not be quite as positive as they sound. As discussed in a previous Green & White post, teacher unions can actually work against teachers by supporting experience-based pay and seniority-based layoff policies. So while Clinton linked her endorsement by the teachers unions with the idea that she supports teachers generally, there is some potential disconnect between those two things. There has also been a lot of skepticism about Sanders’ plan to provide free college to all students. One argument is that Sanders’ plan won’t benefit the students most in need. With poor students often struggling academically, tuition is not the only barrier to college attendance and as a result, funding from Sanders’ plan might just support a large number of students who already have the financial means to attend college.

With three more Democratic debates remaining on the calendar, this certainly won’t be the last we hear from the candidates on education. As Clinton and Sanders continue to hone their messages on education, let’s hope that some of the issues surrounding teacher unions and tuition-free college are more thoroughly addressed.

The full transcript of the March 6 democratic debate can be found here. For more information on Clinton’s views on education, click here. Sanders’ views on education can be found here.

Contact Amy: aulettoa@msu.edu