The 2016 Presidential Election: Quiet on Education Policy, Near Silent on K-12 Education Reform

By Madeleine McKay Jennings
Associate Editor, Vol. 22

I wrote this post in the week preceding the United States presidential election. On November 8, by about 10 p.m., the subject of this writing seemed immediately irrelevant. In my personal and academic lives, I’ve placed much importance around this issue but, on that Tuesday night, it was quickly swallowed by the gargantuan and indigestible circumstance of Donald Trump’s election. In the days following the election, I’ve tried, with difficulty, to remember – and believe in – the significance of issues like this one. These problems remain great, despite being dwarfed by something greater. So here is my pre-election writing on K-12 education in America, set against the backdrop of a silent, uncaring, and generally heartbreaking election cycle.

In the three 2016 presidential debates, no moderator and no spectator asked any question on education policy. In the three debates, the candidates spoke the words “school” and “education” nine and fifteen times, respectively. For Clinton, the words touched on universal preschool, college tuition, and her work with the Children’s Defense Fund in the 1970s; for Trump, the words populated sentences like “the education is a disaster” and “this [election cycle] has been an incredible education for me.”

Broadcasted discussions of the economy and foreign affairs garner higher ratings, and a recent Gallup poll found that only 3% of Americans consider education to be the most important issue facing our country today. This figure sits beside the 14% citing the economy, 11% citing unemployment, 6% citing immigration, and 5% citing terrorism. Fifty million children are enrolled in American public schools, but education, unfortunately, lacks political representation. Those fifty million are unable to vote, and K-12 education advocacy groups do not cohere at the national level.

Clinton took up educational issues during her time as First Lady of Arkansas but, because neither candidate had served as governor (one of the election’s many unusual qualities), there were no gubernatorial bread crumbs on education policy. Over the course of the election cycle, the Clinton campaign articulated the need for universal preschool, higher education loan reform, increased salaries for teachers, and school discipline reforms. The Trump campaign supported school choice, state control over education, and elimination of Common Core (though the states, not the president, have the power to do this). The Clinton campaign vowed to address the school-to-prison pipeline. The Trump campaign’s silence on that and related issues was unsurprising; more troubling was the media silence and the issue’s omission at each of the debates.

School re-segregation, lacking teacher diversity, police presence in schools, discipline disparities across races, and the criminalization of adolescent misconduct in schools were all issues largely missing from the national dialogue this election season. While the Clinton campaign addressed racial inequality in the criminal justice system, it failed to adequately address the fact and nature of its roots in our schools.

 Steadily since the 1990s, and with escalating fears around drugs, gangs, and school shootings, schools have relied increasingly on surveillance measures previously found only in airports and prisons: metal detectors, police officers (“school resource officers”), guards, and gates. Whether—and to what extent—a school employs these techniques correlates strongly and disturbingly with the percentage of minority students in the school. After controlling for variables like school crime, neighborhood crime, and school disorder, one study found that where minority student representation exceeds 50 percent, the school is two to eighteen times more likely to include these measures than are schools where the minority student population falls bellow 20 percent.

In fall 2015, the Shanker Institute published a study on minority teacher shortages, with a focus on nine cities: Boston, Chicago, Cleveland, Los Angeles, New Orleans, New York, Philadelphia, San Francisco, and Washington DC. In the study, sociologist Richard Ingersoll framed teacher diversity as an educational civil right for students. He posited that “[w]hile there is reason to believe that Black, Hispanic and American Indian students would be the greatest beneficiaries of a diverse teaching force, there is evidence that all students—and our democracy at large—would benefit from a teaching force that reflects the full diversity of the U.S. population.” Two studies in Tennessee and Florida, which found improvements in reading and math scores for students assigned to teachers of the same race, mirror the existing research supporting a diverse teacher force. But this knowledge has done little to affect this reality in our schools: As of 2012, 9 in 10 students in New Orleans public schools were Black or Hispanic, while only around 5 in 10 teachers were Black or Hispanic. That same year, in New York City public schools, there were three times as many White teachers as Black and Hispanic teachers, though Black and Hispanic students outnumbered their White counterparts by five times.

At this point, nearly half the states in our country have criminalized behavior that is otherwise benign and typical of children: yelling, shoving, cursing—burping, even. At least 22 states impose criminal penalties on students who disturb school. American children are charged with this crime more than 10,000 times each year, as in the heavily publicized case of Niya Kenny, a former high school student in South Carolina. In that case, the school resource officer arrested Niya after she recorded the officer’s violent treatment of her classmate who had violated state law by using a cellphone during class. Much attention was paid to the violent character of the recorded arrest, but it remains imperative to question the very fact of the arrest. Niya was nineteen years old at the time of her arrest, but children as young as seven have been charged with violations of the South Carolina law, which is punishable by up to 90 days in jail.

The disturbing school statutes in South Carolina and elsewhere were drafted in vague terms and are unsurprisingly applied and enforced asymmetrically. In the 2011-2012 school year, 92,000 students were subjected to school-related arrests. 31 percent of those students were Black, even though Black students account for only 16 percent of the students enrolled in our American public schools.

During the same school year, nearly 5,000 preschool students were suspended, 48 percent of whom were Black, despite the fact that Black preschool children account for only 18 percent of the children enrolled in public preschools. According to a report issued earlier this year by the U.S. Department of Education, Black K-12 students are 3.8 times as likely to receive one or more out-of-school suspensions as White students. This rings true even at the pre-school level, where Black children are 3.6 times as likely to receive one or more out-of-school suspensions as their White classmates. And this confounding gulf exists beside the fact that more than 60% of the instances of major school violence since the 1920s happened in schools that serve primarily White students.

That neither campaign honored these issues is unsurprising in an election cycle largely free of relevant, substantive issues. That we might continue to disregard this reality is an altogether different and unforgivable possibility. With regard to zero-tolerance, we must ask ourselves: What, exactly do we and don’t we tolerate? At present, we tolerate the suspension of an eight-year-old boy who carries his prescribed ADHD medicine in his pocket, the violent criminal arrest of a girl who checks her phone in class, and the five suspensions given to the three-year old boy who hits his teacher in the arm.