We Don’t Know What Kind of President Hillary Clinton Would Be on Public Education

Originally published in The American Prospect on October 15th, 2015.
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Two topics were noticeably absent from Tuesday night’s Democratic debate: K-12 education and labor unions. The latter is much more surprising than the former, since most voters don’t cite education as their voting priority, and even those that do can usually be satiated by pledges to expand preschool and increase college affordability.

In June I wrote about Bernie Sanders’s positions on K-12 education. While he has a fairly progressive record, Vermont is an unusual state, and important questions still remain about what kinds of policies he’d seek to promote as president. Four months since I wrote my article, education is still not listed as an issue topic on his campaign website.

Hillary Clinton, despite having shored up endorsements from both the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers, is still somewhat of a mystery when it comes to K-12 issues. Many rank-and-file teachers were angered by their unions’ early endorsements, especially as other labor unions have either chosen to wait, or backed Bernie Sanders.

Yesterday Mike Antonucci, a writer with the Education Intelligence Agency, a site critical of teachers unions, published what he claims to be the questions posed by the NEA to Hillary Clinton when they were deciding whether to endorse her. Antonucci says he has 11 of the 13 questions, and Clinton’s answers, but doesn’t have a tape or transcript, so he “can’t personally attest to the full context.” Yet he says he’s “supremely confident” in his sources, who provided him with the insider information.

Education reformers are viewing her answers as evidence that she’ll be hostile to the kinds of education reform policies pushed under the Obama administration. Clinton allegedly said she would want NEA’s president to help guide her decisions in the White House, that she’s skeptical of reforms with a libertarian bent and those who seek to make profits off reform, and that with regards to Teach for America, “we’ve learned a lot about how difficult it is for people with six to eight weeks’ training to manage a classroom, to be able to really teach in a way that inspires and produces results.”

While it’s true that Hillary Clinton has a longstanding relationship with Randi Weingarten, the president of the AFT, she also has close ties with some of the billionaire philanthropists who have bankrolled education reform efforts over the past decade. During Hillary Clinton’s last presidential primary, both the Broads and the Gateses donated substantially to the Clinton campaign.

“Mr. Broad has long been a major political donor, primarily to Democrats, and has been particularly well known as a friend and supporter of Bill and Hillary Clinton,”The New York Times reported in 2007.

The Clintons also have ties to the Waltons, the family which oversees the education reform-friendly Walton Family Foundation. Hillary served on the boardof Walmart for six years, and former board members have said that she did not speak out at the time against their efforts to fight unionization. “She was not an outspoken person on labor,” said John E. Tate, who served with Clinton from 1988 to 1992. Despite these ties, Clinton has pushed for a range of social and economic policies opposed by the Walmart founders in the years since her board membership.

At the same time, the Gateses and Waltons have been prominent donors to the Clinton Foundation. Vox reported earlier this year that of the 181 Clinton Foundation donors that lobbied the State Department while she was Secretary of State, the top two were the Walmart/Walton Family Foundation and the Microsoft/Gates Foundation.

Still, some education reformers have already decided that Hillary Clinton will not be a friend to them if elected. After all of the Democratic candidates backed out of an education forum that Campbell Brown wanted to host in Iowa this month, Brown concluded that, “it looks like the progress made by the president will stop at a dead halt if one of [Obama’s] Democratic colleagues replaces him in the White House.”

I don’t think the fact that candidates would avoid talking about polarizing education issues during a primary season, not to mention at an event organized by Campbell Brown, a controversial figure amongst key constituencies the candidates are trying to court, is sufficient evidence to say that Hillary Clinton would not pursue education reform policies once in office. And despite whatever pledges she makes behind closed doors to union leaders more than a year out before the election, as teacher unions have seen during Obama’s term, it can be very difficult to hold Democratic presidents accountable to their campaign promises.

Michael Grunwald, a senior reporter at Politico said on Twitter that, “the candidate who’s beloved by reform critics & tells them she’s a reform critic is a reform critic.”

I disagree, though. If Hillary wins the White House, we really won’t know what kind of president she’ll be on education until she appoints her education secretary. Plus, it’s possible that whoever is next to lead in the Oval Office will be more hands off on federal education policy than either the unions or the reformers would like. As education journalist, and former Prospect writer Dana Goldstein predicts:

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Hopefully K-12 will get more play in the next debate, but I wouldn’t bet on it.

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