Andy Rotherham, writing today for The 74’s Democratic National Convention Live Blog, credibly explains the reasons behind the lack of focus on K-12 policy at this week’s Democratic Convention:
As for any focus on education this week? Yawn. The Democrats remain split on the issue along a few dimensions, although reformers certainly don’t have the upper hand. That will change over time though, and the election isn’t really about education in the first place. Presidential ones rarely are, and this one is even less so. To the extent education really matters, the emerging fault line is around workers dislocated by trade or technology. That’s a genuine problem, a boil Donald Trump picks at, and another issue that creates schisms among Democrats. There are more things we could be doing to help those workers now, but the education piece of that issue is a long game. (my emphasis)
I’m not sure if what he means here is that the “education piece” for dislocated workers can only be addressed through long-term solutions, or if he means that there is no short-game political strategy that would work to address their needs. But I would argue neither are true.
As a practical matter, the education and training needs of many of those workers are relatively addressable within a short time frame (granted, not all), at least compared to Pre-K and K-12 education, where the return on investment takes many more years.
I also think that advancing a strategy that addresses the educational needs of these workers in the short term makes political sense too, but it won’t emerge from either campaign unless the candidates can be convinced that a call for substantial new investments in adult education and job training would provide a political advantage in November.
There’s evidence to suggest it might. Yesterday there was an article by Nick Cohn in the Times that highlighted how poorly Hillary Clinton does in polls with white voters without a college degree—particularly white men without a degree. That population represents nearly half of the people who voted in 2012.
Whatever the merits (and of course on this blog we’d argue the merits are strong), a Democratic candidate for President looking to counter Donald Trump’s appeal to these voters might consider introducing a proposal to advance investments in education programs for this population as a potential strategy to win them over. (It’s also worth considering to what extent Congress and the current administration’s effort to address the needs of dislocated and under skilled workers has been perceived by this segment of the electorate to have been effective, but that’s a post for another day.)
The candidates would also need to understand that job training and college access alone won’t cut it—many of those adults without college degrees lack high school degrees as well.
Rotherman, in his post, goes on to write:
[I]n the post-ESSA world, what the federal government can do on K-12 is limited — what it can do absent congressional assent is even more so. That’s why pre-K and college affordability are attractive, and you’ll be hearing a lot about them going forward. They’re real issues affecting Americans, places the next administration could act in real ways, and issues where Secretary Clinton and Senator Kaine are aligned. (my emphasis)
I would argue that adult education and training are also areas where the next administration could act, and act boldly, and unlike pre-K and college affordability—issues that resonate with many of the middle-class liberal and moderate voters already supporting Clinton—adult education and training speak to those voters she is struggling to appeal to. (I acknowledge that addressing college affordability could potentially have positive implications for dislocated and under skilled workers, but to the best of my knowledge, these proposals are not focused on this population, and college affordability alone doesn’t address the range of this population’s needs.)