Top Dem Candidates Are at Odds With Voters on Education Priorities

Top Dem Candidates Are at Odds With Voters on Education Priorities
AP Photo/John Bazemore

Although education policy is already taking a prominent role on the 2020 campaign trail, there appears to be a disconnect between Democratic voters and the party’s top-tier presidential candidates. What matters most to those candidates, judging by their proposals and debating points, is college debt. But a recent RealClear Opinion Research poll shows that higher education is nowhere to be found among the top education priorities for voters.

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Candidates have grabbed headlines with their ambitious debt relief plans. Bernie Sanders is promising to cancel all student debt. Elizabeth Warren’s plan would cancel debt for millions of lower- and middle-class Americans and provide some debt relief for high earners as well. Joe Biden’s more modest plan calls for increasing Pell Grants and for reducing the minimum monthly payment amounts on income-based loan repayment plans by more than half.

Student loan debt is a major problem, totaling some $1.5 trillion. But RealClear’s poll suggests that voters are more concerned about improving K-12 education and school safety, and preparing students for the workforce.

When asked how important it is that the K-12 public system prepare students to “read and write,” “be good citizens,” “stay safe from violence and physical harm,” “enter the workforce,” “have knowledge of American history,” “think critically,” “vote,” “be free thinkers,” “be curious,” “respect America,” “be happy,” or “compete globally,” registered voters ranked all of the above goals as more important than preparing students to “go to college.”

Preparing students to read and write is voters’ top priority, and evidence shows that voters have reasons to be concerned about this issue. In October, the 2019 National Assessment of Educational Progress, otherwise known as the “Nation’s Report Card,” was released, producing general gasps of horror in the education world and beyond. The report showed that only 34% of eighth graders in the U.S. are at or above proficiency levels for their grade in math and reading. “The results are, frankly, devastating,” said U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.

Education has long remained near the top of Democratic voters’ priorities. In 1999, they ranked education number one; this year, it was number two, just behind health care. For Democratic presidential candidates, the alarming results of the Nation’s Report Card add weight to the voter concern about reading and writing that our poll reveals.

Today, American voters are deeply divided along partisan lines, but their negative assessment of the K-12 system is a notable piece of common ground. “One of a few areas that Democrats and Republicans can agree on these days are their views related to the state of education in the United States,” said John Della Volpe, who designed and directed the RealClear poll. “51% of Republicans and 55% of Democrats rate American education as ‘only fair’ or ‘poor.’”

Americans’ dissatisfaction with the traditional education system is fueling the nation’s ongoing debate over school choice — another important campaign issue. Leading Democrats are increasingly opposed to charter schools and voucher programs. But our poll indicates that registered voters support school choice by a margin of 68% to 22%. This puts the candidates at odds with many of their own voters.

Teacher unions make up a powerful part of the Democratic base, which helps explain why well-funded candidates find themselves at odds with voter sentiment on school choice. If candidates acknowledge the failures of the current system, or if they support school-choice policies, they risk the wrath of a special interest group that wields formidable power.

So what can Democratic candidates do? One time-tested campaign strategy is to simply throw more money at the problem. Sanders and Biden have promised massive new education spending. Elizabeth Warren has promised more still — hundreds of billions in increased spending and an end to all federal funding for charter schools.

Yet there’s little evidence that more money alone is the answer. The U.S. already spends considerably more per student than almost every other nation in the world ($16,268 as of 2014), but still lags behind most other developed nations in academic performance.

Our K-12 system just received an abysmal Report Card. Meanwhile, voters say simply preparing students to read and write is their top educational priority. The relative silence of leading 2020 presidential candidates on school performance — as compared to, say, student loan debt — indicates there is a priority gap between candidates and voters.

That priority gap may be at least partly class-based. Polls show that college-educated Democrats have vastly more trust in government competence than do less educated Democrats. In other words, the elite, highly educated Democrats who often write campaign platforms may simply be out of touch with rank-and-file voters.

Since the Nation’s Report Card indicates we are failing at something that voters say is a top priority, I wonder if the current presidential candidates are missing an opportunity to connect with voters on one of the issues those voters prioritize most — improving the quality of public education.

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