Think Education is a 2016 Campaign Issue? Think Again.

Every election season, the same debate seems to happen in edu-circles. We discuss how important education issues are in this particular election. Such talk often will refer to a recent Gallup poll that places education fifth or eighth on the list of things people most care about. We mention the role of unions, particularly teachers unions, in turning out the vote. And we convince ourselves that education policy will matter this election year.

Earlier today, EdWeek’s Andrew Ujifusa provided a nice dive into what the Democrats’ education platform looks like, while last week his partner Alyson Klein reported on Donald Trump’s eduspeak at the GOP convention. We even have multiple edu-bloggers writing in recent days on the WikilLeaks DNC email dump and DNC staff referring to Common Core as the “third rail” this political season.

A lot of words, yes, but how does this translate to the average voter and the average campaign issue? To be fair, I don’t expect national campaigns to be running on campaign issues. I’d be shocked if Trump even mentions education again over the next three-plus months, other than have some of his surrogates mention Common Core and federal takeovers of our schools (and maybe bathrooms) as red meat for the base.

And while I don’t believe the key to Hillary Clinton picking up enough undecided voters to secure a plurality of voters come November is going to be edu-speak, I do expect education to be part of the discussion for the future. I believe a strong society and a strong future depends on a strong educational infrastructure. Whether that is managing student loan debt, improving access to postsecondary options including career and technical education, enhancing early childhood opportunities, and, yes, raising student test scores. Education is a key strand in the DNA of what so many are seeking when it comes to their futures.

So I was quire surprised when I received an email from the Hillary Clinton campaign this morning, asking me to fill out a survey to share what issues matter most to me and my family. I was asked the issue that mattered most to me, and was provided 14 choices (plus an other box). As you’ll see in this photo, choices included everything from gun violence prevention to criminal justice reform to climate change to Wall Street reform to disability rights. But no education.


When I checked “other,” I didn’t get a free-fill box to write in my choice. So what “other” means to be will never be revealed to those tabulating what is most important to my family.

And when asked what the second-important issue was to my family, I got the same list.

I can only hope that those compiling the results from this survey (and from similar surveys being done by Team Trump) recognize that education is the non-negotiable in all of these. Looking at the 14 options provided, Eduflack can’t see how any of these issues cannot be fully addressed without improving the P-20 educational systems available to our families.

But I’ve also done enough political campaigns to know that subtlety and nuance are not things found to be effective in such efforts. When lists like these are provided to the average voter, we internalize that these are the issues most important to the American people. And we subconsciously acknowledge that education just isn’t on our list of the top 14 issues the country is facing.

And that’s a cryin’ shame.


Does Online Ed Lack Integrity? Seriously?

I don’t want to make Eduflack an ed-policy-check blog about the Hillary Clinton campaign. After critiquing the Hillary effort earlier this week, I pledged to myself I was done with presidential campaign edu-politics for a while.

Then Carl Straumsheim, a part of the terrific reporting team over at Inside Higher Education, has to go and discover and then write up what he did today about Hillary’s edu-speech this week and its remarks about online education.

As Straumsheim reported:

In a version of the plan distributed to the media this past weekend, the campaign said, “We must restore integrity to online learning and will not tolerate programs that fall short,” as though online education has recently lost its way. The campaign reworded the sentence before Monday’s announcement, however. The published version reads, “We must bring integrity to online learning” — as though it never had any in the first place.

Unfortunately, the Clinton campaign didn’t respond to IHE’s request for comment to the report. So we are all left guessing by what they intended and why what was written was actually written (and spoken).

I want to give the Clinton campaign the benefit of the doubt. I really do. I want to believe this was just a clumsy attempt to talk about the problems facing for-profit higher education today. It was a way to voice concerns about gainful employment and the collapse of Corinthian Colleges and the hope that a college degree has meaning, regardless of who’s name is on the top of the sheepskin.

But by using the words that she did, and editing them the way that she did, Hillary simply adds fuel to a fire that is already confusing far too many. She is using online education as a synonym for for-profit education. She is confusing instructional delivery method with the administrative mission and responsibility. And she is wrong in doing so.

There are a great number of traditional, not-for-profit colleges and universities that use online education. IHE mentions Hillary’s own alma mater, Wellesley College. We could add Bill’s undergraduate school, Georgetown University, to the list of colleges playing in online ed. And institutions such as Harvard, MIT, Stanford, and even my own University of Virginia make the list.

Surely we aren’t suggesting that these colleges and the hundreds like them that are using online delivery to reach today’s students lack integrity, are we? Does she really mean that every institution that currently offers blended learning or online platforms or even MOOCs lacks integrity? That a program “falls short” simply because it isn’t delivered through a traditional classroom setting, with a single professor talking before a lecture hall of hundreds of desks (many of which may have students sitting in them)?

If she meant to criticize for-profit higher education providers like Corinthian (and many of them do deserve criticism) then just come right out and say it. But remember that a provider like University of Phoenix provides far more “education” through its traditional, bricks-and-mortar storefronts that Hillary seems to embrace than it does through its online offerings. And don’t forget that, until earlier this year, Bill Clinton just wrapped up five years as the “honorary chancellor” of the Laureate International Universities for-profit and online chain (and earned millions of dollars for the honor, according to the NYT.)

Since 2007 or 2008, Eduflack has waxed semi-eloquently on this blog about the value and benefits of online learning. Much of it has been focused on K-12 blended learning efforts, but some of it has also been directed toward higher education. Today’s learners are not like those of a previous generation. Online learning allows all of us to ensure that tech-savvy students don’t need to unplug or de-skill when they enter a classroom. It ensures that a student is not denied an academic path of choice because of geographic limitations. It helps students pursue postsecondary education on their terms, building programs that work with the growing demands of families, work, and life.

Done right, online education empowers the learner. It puts the decision making in the hands of the student, and not just the provider. And it can require an education provider to improve instruction, delivery, content, and overall quality as a result.

Online education has enormous power when it comes to opening doors to those previously denied and leveling the learning playing fields.

Do some providers abuse that power and offer an inferior product? Absolutely. But the same can be said of bricks-and-mortar institutions that will enroll any warm body willing to take out loans to pay rising tuition costs. Our focus should be on the quality of instruction-however it is delivered-and not exclusively on the model being used to deliver it.

Mrs. Clinton, I hope you intend to continue to push on the discussion of integrity and institutional quality in higher education. But please don’t use such a broad brush in the process. Let’s look at grad rates and employment statistics. Let’s look at institutional costs and student loan debt. Let’s even discuss the merits, or lack there of, of for-profit higher education.

But let’s not suggest online education lacks integrity. Education, whether online or delivered in any other method, depends of the quality, values, and character of the person delivering it. Whether they do it in a classroom, online, from the town square, or at the local Dunkin’ Donuts, integrity is a measure of the quality of the product, not the means for delivering it.

Hillaryland, We Have an Edu-Optics Problem

Typically, Eduflack tries to stay away from purely political issues here. Yes, I love to write about the intersection of education policy, politics, and communications. But there has to be a real education slant to it. Even though Eduflack is a former campaign hack and flack, and has worked to elect Democrats (and a few Republicans) to political office, and even though I am a former elected official myself, this isn’t a political platform.

So I’ve largely bitten my tongue (at least on this blog) when it comes to the rookie mistakes and amateur actions that we have seen month after month from Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign. I’m not going to rehash those here, but with her experience, with the experience of the best political team money can buy, let’s just say I expect much, much better.

But this morning, those problems oozed out into the edu-sphere, so I see it as fair game on Eduflack. As many news outlets are reporting, today Hillary Clinton is announcing a $350 billion college affordability plan. Bloomberg’s account of the plan is here, while The Washington Post’s is here and Politico’s can be found here.

Let me make clear. I don’t have any issue with any efforts to increase the number of college-going (and college-completing) Americans, nor do I oppose efforts to make college more affordable (even if it is by loan, rather than grant). And I don’t even take issue with a plan that, as reported, sound remarkably like the idea that Toby and Josh hatched in a bar on West Wing when they missed the campaign plane in Indiana and got stranded in a local bar and met a dad who didn’t know how he was going to pay for college for his daughter.

No, my real issue is with the optics of today’s announcement. While every major media outlet has already reported on the Clinton affordability plan, the official announcement will be made today in New Hampshire. In Exeter, New Hampshire.

For those unfamiliar, Exeter is the hometown of the Phillips Exeter Academy, one of the most elite private high schools in the nation. The uber-wealthy who send their children to this private high school pay, according to the school’s website, $46,905 a year in tuition, room, and board. They also have to pony up $180 for linen service, $365 for a student health and wellness fee, and $340 for a technology fee. For an optional $2,060, families can also buy a student accident/sickness insurance plan (for when, I’m assuming, the student health fee and mommy and daddy’s corporate insurance just won’t do).

While this may cause some sticker shock for many of us parents, don’t fret. Phillips Exeter boasts that it is able to provide financial aid to those families who suffer by earning less than $400,000 a year. (No, that isn’t a typo, that’s $400k, not $40k.)

Let that sink in for a moment. We are off to talk about the struggles of middle class parents paying for college in a town where the private high school costs more than most middle class parents’ take-home income for the entire year. We are preaching “affordability” in a community where those earning just under a half-million-dollars a year are considered needy and demanding of financial aid.

The sunny-eyed optimist in me would like to believe that Hillary is going to Exeter to proclaim that every student, even those who attend the elitist Phillips Exeter Academy, should have the opportunity and ability to attend the college of their choice. But the steely-eyed realist knows Exeter was chosen because it was in New Hampshire, with no real symbolism at all.

I hate to break it to those making campaign decisions these days, but the average American family doesn’t quite relate to a private school that charges upwards of $50,000 a year FOR HIGH SCHOOL. They bristle when one suggests $400,000 a year in income qualifies for financial aid.

Hillary’s advisors may see today as the declaration of a “mandate to act on college affordability,” as they told Politico. But for far too many families who currently don’t qualify for grants and yet can’t afford college for their kids next year, they will see it as just another example of the millionaire class just not getting it. Particularly when Hillary’s standard $275,000 speaking fee was more than adequate, with just one speech, to pay for daughter Chelsea’s four years at Stanford University.

Face. Palm. Repeat.

UPDATE: For those who want to give Hillary the benefit of the doubt, and have asked some questions, I’ll offer up a little more data. The grand unveiling of the plan will be at Exeter High School. As for the town of Exeter, New Hampshire itself. I’m sure it is lovely. It has a little more than 14,000 residents, more than 95 percent of whom are white. Two percent of the population is Asian-American. A little more than half a percent of the population is African-American. Latinos don’t even register. And the median family income falls just short of $100,000 per year. Ain’t that America?