K-12 Isn't Showing Up on the 2020 Chalkboard

The issue of K-12 didn't register in 2016 or 2018. It could happen again in 2020

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A recent observation from EdWeek’s Alyson Klein offers what appears as an alarming omission from a majority 2020 Democratic presidential candidate platforms: a comprehensive plan on what they would do to fix America’s ailing K-12 education system.

If you're looking for information on the education visions of 2020 Democratic candidates for president, you probably won't find it on their campaign websites.

More than half the announced candidates don't bother to include anything about education in the "issues" section of their official campaign websites.

That’s not necessarily political commentary on that party, the field or those particular candidates. The larger problem is that it’s not just the candidates. Despite the pillar role education plays in a fully functional and productive society, it’s current state or crisis receives scant attention from the broader public discourse. There is recognition of a problem, but many experts argue that the larger public is not treating the urgent need for a solution in the manner it deserves. Indeed - whether it’s candidates, policymakers or media - there is greater discussion on challenges in higher education (take the crisis of student loan debt, for example, and the recent college admissions cheating scandal) than there is on what the average student will need in order to achieve that goal in the first place: a quality K-12 education.

As a result, there are enormous problems with the K-12 system that remain unresolved, and with very little robust public discussion behind it. There are no daily musings or panel discussions on mainstream media cable talk shows about the state of education. In recent years, the public will mostly hear about K-12 education problem when lumped into four categories of unfortunate headlines: school shootings; teacher strikes; the occasional local school system scandal; and reaction from critics to periodic policy announcements and regulatory reversals from controversial Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos.

Polling Could Explain … Some of It

Election cycles, like the 2020 election forthcoming, are significant since the candidates eventually become policymakers who shape (or re-shape) the legislative and regulatory landscape. Those changes can positively or negatively effect the future of K-12 education. And with the current K-12 system in a state of crisis, there is a need for fresh ideas, innovative solutions and forward-thinking remedies beyond current approaches. The first step to realizing that new path is when public discourse influences candidate thought leadership and, eventually, policymaker planning and implementation.

Yet, the lack of an urgent, broad and solutions-based public discussion on the state of K-12 during this election cycle (just like in 2018 and 2016 before it) means the public and, more specifically, parents and children won’t be seeing any fundamental changes anytime soon. The transformation needed, simply, won’t happen - unless candidates and policymakers are pressed to do so.

Current polling on the topic may not be encouraging candidates to go bold on education. The most recent Economist/YouGov poll takes a look at this by demographic. When voters respond on how important education is to them ….

It’s a slightly large majority just shy of 60 percent - but, we should note the 30 percent who only say “somewhat important,” as well as the differences or scales of importance based on gender, age, race, Party ID and income. Those differences based on sub-groups are important to note.

What’s more significant is how those views on education are weighted against other topics competing for attention. Take health care, for example, which polls better …

That’s 12 percentage points more who say “very important” compared to those who say the same for education, with key demographic groups across the board agreeing. And then when we look at education compared to all other major issues, as this table displays here ….

Overall, education ranks 6th out of the top 15 issues identified as most important to voters. It never captures more than 20 percent of any demographic group, although, notably, it ranks considerably higher among Black (11 percent) and Latino (13 percent) respondents. And the only bloc of survey respondents who give it the highest prioritization are those between the ages of 30-44. And, even there, it’s not clear if that group is indicating its importance based on K-12 education or the impact of crushing student loan debt on that particular generation.

Most Voters Aren’t K-12 Parents

In addition, as we can see from exit polling in previous election cycles, most voters are not parents of children under 18 who are in the K-12 system. As a result, the K-12 education issue is not front and center in most American households as it should be. Voters are either not parents or they are parents of over-18 adults and feel that the issue is no longer a responsibility that requires their attention. Take a look at the 2018 election cycle (otherwise known as “the midterms”) exit polling data (pulled from CNN) …

Only 30 percent of voters, just over a quarter of the electorate, identify themselves as “parents” compared to an overwhelming 70 percent who do not. This has huge implications for the treatment of the K-12 education issue, and it partly explains why the issue does not resonate as much as it should with voters, candidates and, arguably, with policymakers, too. Of those respondents, 70 percent acknowledge they do not have “Children under 18” and larger portions of male (34 percent) and female (36 percent) respondents were voters “without children.”

In 2016 exit polling - pulled from the New York Times - education didn’t even register as a “Most important issue” and neither did the question of who was a parent or not - despite the “Married” question

These numbers represent a fundamental problem in the ongoing conversation over the future of K-12 education in America. While the education of children is, without doubt, a core and pillar function of any civil society, the current K-12 conversation is simply not front and center in the minds of American voters. There is, arguably, some variation on the issue when examining local or state polls (for example, a 2015 Pew Trusts poll of Philadelphia voters found city residents overwhelmingly ranked K-12 education the “top issue” out of seven). But, to a large and worrisome degree, the issue is not as prioritized. Instead, voters and citizens have relinquished this exercise to advocates, influence groups and policymakers in perpetual tug-of-war over the issue, with the lion’s share of the K-12 education conversation dominated by teacher’s unions. This could explain why the first major K-12 education announcement of the 2020 election cycle is centered on teacher pay raises as the major solution. But what’s needed is a sharper focus on other crucial topics such as mission, structure, curriculum, modes of learning, innovation and reform.


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