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There may not be a candidate in the history of U.S. presidential politics who hasn’t acknowledged problems with the education system and has structured a position around them. The 2016 presidential race is no exception:

“We need to fix our broken education system to create opportunity for all Americans.”Donald Trump, February 27, 2016

Hillary Clinton's platform on education

“So I’m excited about what we can do together to help hardworking families and ambitious, hardworking young people get the education and the skills they need.”Hillary Clinton, January 31, 2016

Well, when it comes to the federal government, I would abolish the federal Department of Education, and very quickly.” – Gary Johnson, June 9, 2016

The Politics of Education
We need to fix our broken education system to create opportunity for all Americans.Together we will ‪#‎MakeAmericaGreatAgainWe need to fix our broken education system to create opportunity for all Americans.Together we will ‪#‎MakeAmericaGreatAgain

The problems with primary (K-12) and secondary (college) education in the United States are well documented:

average american debt from graduation rose 56%

And so are the opinions of voters:

  • In the same PDK-Gallup poll, however, only 44% of participants said that having a college education was “very important.”
  • And in Gallup’s July “Most Important Problem” poll, only 2% of respondents considered education the nation’s most important non-economic problem—down from 4% – 5% in recent months.

Voter apathy when it comes to education may be part of the reason the 2016 presidential candidates haven’t spent a great deal of time openly discussing education reform. While most people agree that current education policy issues are important, it’s been demonstrated in polls they also believe that a number of other topics, including the economy, unemployment, war, terrorism and crime are more significant. As a result, candidates have either relied on informing voters about their education policy by posting bullet point outlines on their websites, or in the case of Republican candidate Donald Trump, relying on solely on live events, such as interviews, town hall discussions and debates to discuss current education policy issues.

Where the Candidates Stand

Even if student loans aren’t the topic on the minds of most voters, it can be a critical issue to those who are straddled by onerous debt obligations. Traditional battleground states Florida, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan and Illinois each have in excess of one million borrowers. In fact, over $250 billion of the total national student loan obligations come from residents of those five states.

In addition to what’s been termed by some as “the student loan crisis,” the next presidential term is likely to be a make or break period for some of the other key issues in education. Consequently, we’ve examined the proposed education policies of three of the 2016 U.S. presidential candidates:

  • Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton – Democratic Party
  • Donald Trump – Republican Party
  • Former New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson – Libertarian Party

While point by point comparisons often only include the candidates of the two major parties, Governor Johnson has recently polled as high as 11% of the popular vote. Because this is a substantial enough number to affect the outcome of the general election, we deemed his education policies worthy of inclusion.

How much college debt is there and what presidential candidates would do about it

Existing College Debt – Among the current education policy issues the next president will have to tackle is the estimated $1.2 trillion in student debt.

Hillary Clinton: proposed policy for existing student loan debt that would include:

  • Refinancing student loans at current rates to bring down the payment amounts
  • Extending the term over which students’ debts could be paid to reduce payment amounts
  • A payment cap not to exceed 10% of the borrower’s monthly income
  • Debt forgiveness on student loans after 20 years
  • A three-year period where entrepreneurs can defer payments and interest
  • Up to $17,500 in loan forgiveness for entrepreneurs starting businesses in distressed communities

Donald Trump: stated in his book, “Crippled America,” that “A four-year degree today can be expensive enough to create six-figure debt. We can’t forgive these loans, but we should take steps to help students.” In other statements, he’s discussed refinancing loans at lower rates and extending the terms of loans to lower payments.

  • No debt forgiveness
  • Refinancing existing loans at lower interest rates
  • Extending loan terms to reduce monthly payments


Gary Johnson: stated in a June 6 interview that he would consider providing students with “some sort of benefit or a reduced interest rate.” The statement is unclear as to whether he was referring to existing student debt, future student debt, or both. Governor Johnson’s webpage doesn’t define a position on this subject.

Lowering the Cost of College Education – A four-year college degree in the United States costs more than anywhere else in the world. Because there is a greater demand for college-educated workers in the U.S. labor market, most politicians agree that the cost of education needs to be lowered.

Hillary Clinton:

  • Free tuition at in-state four-year public universities and colleges immediately for students with family incomes below $85,000. (By 2021, this would apply to families with income under $125,000.)
  • Free college tuition at community colleges for all students.
  • SPARK scholarship will award up to $1,500 per year for parents attending college.
  • Students will work 10 hours per week to offset some of the costs of education.
  • Higher taxes on the wealthiest Americans would pay for free college.

Donald Trump:

  • Lower interest rates and extending loan periods.
  • Student loans to be handled exclusively through private institutions. Believes this will create more competitive repayment terms.
  • Was quoted at a University of Wisconsin town hall meeting as saying, “There’s no such thing as a free education.”

Gary Johnson:

  • Eliminate student loans altogether. This would alleviate the demand on education that they’re creating, which he believes is driving up the costs.

Gary on education accountability

Common Core Education – The Common Core State Standards Initiative attempts to unify the curriculum being taught in public schools. 42 states and the District of Columbia have adapted CCSSI.

Hillary Clinton: In favor Common Core. Believes Common Core helps bridge the education gaps between wealthy and poorer school districts.

Donald Trump:  Against Common Core. He supports local education.

Gary Johnson: Against Common Core. “Common Core and other attempts to impose national standards and requirements on local schools are costly, overly bureaucratic, and actually compromise our ability to provide our children with a good education.” – Gary Johnson for President website

School Vouchers – Government school vouchers are redeemable by families who opt to put their children in private schools.

Hillary Clinton: Doesn’t favor school vouchers. She believes they’re a way to siphon money from public schools.

Donald Trump: Hasn’t taken a recent position on vouchers, but in his book, “The America We Deserve,” states that vouchers can contribute to increased competition from private schools, forcing public schools to improve.

Gary Johnson: Is for school vouchers. As governor of New Mexico, proposed a $3,500 per student annual voucher program where parents could use the voucher for any school competing with the public school system. Because he’s indicated that he wants to reduce the involvement of the Federal Government in education, it’s unclear which direction he would take with regard to Federal school vouchers.

Minority Education and the Achievement Gap – The “achievement gap” occurs when there is a disparity in the educational academic testing performance levels of white students when compared to black, Hispanics and other minority students. The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP)  tests and tracks these numbers. Closing the achievement gap is considered one of the critical current topics in education reform.

Hillary Clinton:

  • Supports Pell Grant funding for low and middle income students. This group often includes minority students.
  • Wants to create a $25 billion fund to support educational institutions that have traditionally catered to Black, Hispanic and other minority communities.
  • Proposes free college education at state schools for low-income families and for all students at community colleges.
  • Proposes to allocate $2 billion to ­­help schools redraft overly punitive policies and end the “school-to-prison pipeline,” which disproportionately affects minorities.
  • Wants to remove racial disparities in school discipline.

Donald Trump: Has no positon on the achievement gap on his campaign website. We also weren’t able to find any mention of the achievement gap by Mr. Trump in campaign speeches, interviews or press conferences.

Gary Johnson: Has no position on the achievement gap listed on his campaign website. Supports a decentralized education system, but doesn’t discuss how it would affect minority groups.

Federal Education Spending – The President proposes the annual budget to Congress for approval. A portion of this budget is often filtered to local and state K-12 schools, colleges and universities. While it’s impossible to know exactly how much any candidate intends to cut or increase federal education spending, each candidate’s proposal indicates whether they intend to increase or decrease the allocation.

Hillary Clinton: Has proposed a number of policies that would inevitably require increases in federal spending, including creating a $25 billion fund for institutions that traditionally support minority students, establishing a $2 billion fund to overhaul public school disciplinary policies, increasing the number of Pell grants available and extending their coverage periods and offering tuition-free educations at state and community colleges. This represents a substantial anticipated increase in education spending, which she proposes to offset by increasing taxes on th wealthy.

Donald Trump: Has promised to cut the budget or eliminate the U.S. Department of Education and eliminate the Common Core State Standards. He also wants to turn student lending entirely over to private institutions.

Gary Johnson: Wants to eliminate the U.S. Department of Education. Opposed to federal funding of public schools. Is in favor of vouchers for students attending private institutions, but may not include that as part of a policy position.

Charter Schools: These are schools that work along with the public education system, but with greater autonomy than traditional K-12 schools. They are generally tuition free and open to all children in a community. They often employ non-unionized teachers. Charter schools receive money based upon their student enrollment.

Hillary Clinton: Has been a long-time supporter of charter schools, but Secretary Clinton was also quoted as saying that charter schools “don’t take the hardest-to-teach kids, or, if they do, they don’t keep them.” This is a common charge against charter schools, the critics of which complain that special needs students are often moved to the public schools so they don’t adversely affect performance standards.

Donald Trump: Believes charter schools encourage competition, which will improve the overall quality of education.

Gary Johnson: Has no position about charter schools on his website. This could be the result of his position that the Federal Government shouldn’t have a role in local education.

Education Accountability Standards – Some presidential candidates propose to set standards for teachers and institutions and hold them accountable to those standards:

Hillary Clinton:

  • Supports Common Core, which sets accountability standards for public school institutions
  • Supporter of the No Child Left Behind Act
  • Has supported charter schools in the past, which are subject to accountability standards

Donald Trump:

  • Doesn’t support Common Core State Standards
  • Believes the virtual monopoly that public schools have on the K-12 education system is causing schools to perform poorly in the absence of competition
  • Supports charter schools

Gary Johnson:

  • Wants to eliminate Common Core State Standards
  • Wants to eliminate the Department of Education
  • Doesn’t favor any federal oversight of schools

Comprehensiveness of Candidates’ Plans – A presidential candidate’s platform can often indicate the attention and resources that he or she will attempt to dedicate to an issue after election. Senator Clinton, Mr. Trump and Governor Johnson each have a website outlining various policy positions.

While quantifying the number of words, pages or points on a candidate’s website doesn’t necessarily tell voters about the soundness of their education plan, it does suggest that particular candidate’s understanding of the complexity of the problems he or she will face during the next presidential term.

Of the three candidates we reviewed, Senator Clinton’s site had the most detailed discussion of her intended proposals, dedicating several pages exclusively to education issues.

Governor Johnson’s site has a one-page outline of his plans for the education system, which primarily consist of eliminating the Department of Education and the CCSSI. Most of his positions discussed in this article came from interviews and speeches.

Mr. Trump opted to not include a section for education on his website. He has discussed education in some of the books he’s published, but those ideas haven’t been organized into what would be considered a platform position. All of Donald Trump’s positions discussed in this article were from speeches, interviews, debates and passages in his books.

Summary of the Candidate Positions

We reviewed the three candidates on ten positions:

  • Existing college debt
  • Lowering the cost of college education
  • Common core education
  • School vouchers
  • Minority education and the achievement gap
  • Federal education spending
  • Charter schools
  • Education accountability standards
  • Comprehensiveness of the candidates’ plans

Secretary Clinton supports an expansion and fortification of the Federal role in education, while Mr. Trump and Governor Johnson want to reduce or eliminate federal involvement. In the next few months leading up to the election, the candidates’ positions may become more clearly defined or may be subject to modifications.

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