Will K-12 Reform Funders Have Friends in a Clinton Administration?

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Like the 2012 campaign four years earlier, K-12 schooling has remained largely on the sidelines of this presidential race, superseded this year by the theatrics of a contest straight out of reality TV. When actual issues do come up, they've tended to include immigration, trade and national security.

Still, despite a dearth of specifics from either campaign, education policy advocates are paying close attention to the candidates’ stances on K-12 and their implications for the funder-backed reforms that have dominated the education policy landscape for the past decade. One source for clues as to the candidates’ views on education is to look at who advises the respective campaigns, along with their ties to funders. 

A look at the education advisors to the Clinton campaign suggests a step away from the policies championed by President Obama and supported by prominent funders like the Gates Foundation. A list of advisors, published earlier in September by Mother Jones, includes the heads of the country’s largest teachers unions. Lily Eskelsen Garcia and Randi Weingarten are the presidents of the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers, respectively.

The inclusion of two union leaders among her education advisors perhaps points to the sharpest contrast between Clinton and President Obama, whose K-12 policies have emanated largely from a wing of the Democratic Party that views unions as a key barrier to reform. Clinton, meanwhile, has promised that teachers unions would have a seat at the table in her administration.

But this doesn’t mean a Clinton presidency would spell the end of test-based accountability, charter school expansion, and other reforms backed by Obama and championed by Gates, the Broad Foundation, and other prominent funders. While Clinton has called for a reduction in standardized testing, she has been supportive of charter schools, saying the practices of successful ones should be studied and replicated. The latter has put the former secretary of state at odds with unions, who tend to see charters as part of a larger agenda to privatize public schooling.

Clinton’s education advisors also include Catherine Brown, vice president of education policy at the Center for American Progress (and a former vice president of Teach For America), and Richard Riley, former education secretary under Bill Clinton. As governor of South Carolina during the 1980s, Riley was an early leader in the push for increased testing and school accountability. As education secretary, he backed test-based accountability, but also advocated smaller classes and increased school funding.

Despite the presence of advisors such as Riley and Brown, Mother Jones reported that Clinton’s ties to teachers unions and reduced emphasis on standardized testing has caused some discomfort among funders and reform advocates that have influenced the Obama administration. But while Clinton’s education agenda has put a spotlight on issues that divide Democrats, it also has concentrated on an issue that unites them.

In campaign appearances and speeches, Clinton has highlighted early childhood initiatives, a signature issue of hers for many years. She is a former board member of the Children’s Defense Fund. Early childhood education also has broad support in Congress, and a growing body of research evidence indicates that better early learning, especially for low-income kids, has stronger returns than reforms that focus on raising test scores in elementary and secondary years.

Clinton’s push for early learning should be music to be the ears of early childhood funders such as J.B. Pritzker of Chicago, a prominent advocate of early learning and supporter of the Ounce of Prevention Fund (and a huge donor to Hillary Clinton's campaign); the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, one of the leading funders of initiatives aimed at improving outcomes for young children; and the Gates Foundation, which is turning more of its attention to early learning, as we've reported. 

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The latest incarnation of federal education, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), allows the use of Title I funds for early education and encourages states to do more to help children to transition from pre-kindergarten to elementary school. A Clinton administration could mean great news for early learning advocates and the funders behind them.

Far less is known about the K-12 agenda of Donald Trump, but if you asked him, he would probably tell you it will be great. The Trump campaign has said little about education beyond usual Republican talking points about expanding school choice and ending the Common Core, despite repeated assurances from campaign manager Kellyanne Conway that more details would be forthcoming. Education Week reported in late August that the campaign tapped Rob Goad, an education policy advisor to U.S. Rep. Luke Messer of Indiana, to develop education policies for the campaign.

Education Week reported that Goad was the first person hired by the campaign to advise on education issues and that he would apparently concentrate on school choice policies, such as expanding charter schools, a favorite position among charter funders such as the Walton Family Foundation and the Laura and John Arnold Foundation.

Related: Education and the 2016 Election: Implications for Funders and Nonprofits