What Clinton and Trump say about school vouchers, Common Core and free college tuition

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Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump meets with teachers, students and local officials during a campaign visit to the Cleveland Arts and Social Sciences Academy in Cleveland, Ohio, U.S., September 8, 2016.  REUTERS/Mike Segar - RTX2OPQK

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JUDY WOODRUFF: But, first, our coverage of the issues in this presidential campaign continues.

And we’re taking the opportunity to focus on where they stand on education, as part of our weekly series Making the Grade.

Correspondent Lisa Desjardins gets us started with this primer.

LISA DESJARDINS: It is a wide education gap. The candidates disagree not just on how to fix schools, but also on what the problems are.

First, Donald Trump.

DONALD TRUMP (R), Presidential Nominee: That’s why I’m proposing a plan to provide school choice to every disadvantaged student in America.

LISA DESJARDINS: The Republican wants a $12,000 voucher for every child living in poverty.

DONALD TRUMP: That means parents will be able to send their kids to the desired public, private, or even religious school of their choice.

LISA DESJARDINS: Here’s Trump’s math; $12,000 times 11 million kids, that’s over $130 billion. To pay for that, Trump would kick in $20 billion in federal funds, and he’d like states to find the rest, over $100 billion.

Libertarian Gary Johnson has long pushed for vouchers, but he is to the right of Trump on something else. He would close the Department of Education and send savings back to the states.

Hillary Clinton, on the other hand, strongly opposes vouchers, charging that Trump’s plan would gut public school funding. One of her biggest changes would be for even younger kids, a universal preschool plan that was part of her campaign launch last year.

HILLARY CLINTON (D), Presidential Nominee: Our country won’t be competitive or fair if we don’t help more families give their kids the best possible start in life.

LISA DESJARDINS: Another contrast, the Common Core education standards. Trump regularly touts his full opposition.

DONALD TRUMP: We’re going to terminate Common Core out of Washington. We’re going to bring our education local.

LISA DESJARDINS: Clinton doesn’t talk Common Core much, but she does support it. Instead, her marquee education plan is about a different rung.

HILLARY CLINTON: We came up with a plan that makes public college tuition-free for working families and debt-free for everyone.

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

LISA DESJARDINS: Clinton’s idea, inspired in part by former opponent Bernie Sanders, is threefold. One, she’d make in-state universities tuition-free for families earning less than $125,000. Two, community college would be tuition-free for everyone. And, three, she’d address those who have to pay now.

HILLARY CLINTON: If you already have debt, we will help you refinance it and pay it back as a percentage of your income, so you’re never on the hook for more than you can afford.

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

LISA DESJARDINS: Clinton would raise taxes on the wealthy to pay for her college plans. The Green Party’s Jill Stein would go further and erase all student debt with a kind of government bailout.

In contrast, Trump has no specific plans for college costs, though, in a Twitter video, he did criticize the government’s role in student lending. The candidates hit nearly opposite education issues, even as they fight for the same student and parent votes.

For the “PBS NewsHour,” I’m Lisa Desjardins.

GWEN IFILL: Now Jeffrey Brown looks more deeply into the differences between the two major nominees on education.

JEFFREY BROWN: And for that, we turn to two journalists who cover this closely.

Andrew Ujifusa is with our partners at Education Week. Scott Jaschik is the editor of Inside Higher Education.

Welcome to both of you.

Andrew, let me start with you. And let’s start with K through 12 and these differences over vouchers and school choices. School choice, dramatic differences.

ANDREW UJIFUSA, Education Week: Yes, very dramatic differences.

Recently, Donald Trump proposed a $20 billion federal school choice program, which a lot of conservatives like. It’s not entirely clear how that would work in many instances, but it does have the backing of many Republicans. Clinton very much opposed to it.

I think we should keep in mind here that the two national teachers unions, which very closely back Clinton and have for some time, they are very much opposed to vouchers as well.

JEFFREY BROWN: Because they’re historically worried about its implications for public education.

ANDREW UJIFUSA: Yes, that’s exactly right.

JEFFREY BROWN: Is it clear how Donald Trump would pay for this?

ANDREW UJIFUSA: No, he has not made that clear.

He has not said, for example, where the money would come from within the federal government. I don’t think he wants to raise taxes to pay for his school choice program. That wouldn’t go over well with fellow Republicans. But a lot of the details about that program are still unclear.

JEFFREY BROWN: And with Hillary Clinton, she has expressed in the past some support for charter schools, right, but where is she? What is she saying these days?

ANDREW UJIFUSA: That is a very good question. It’s hard to say.

I think, in the past, it’s fair to say she’s been more supportive of charter schools. But ever since she hit the 2016 campaign trail, she has voiced more concerns about charter schools, such as the type of students they enroll. Again, that might reflect a lot of the concerns that teachers unions have about charters.

JEFFREY BROWN: And then let me stay with you for the question of Common Core, because there, again, you have Donald Trump, who has referred to it as a disaster. I think he’s pretty clear.

ANDREW UJIFUSA: Yes. Yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: Hillary Clinton, measured support? Where would you put the two of them right now?

ANDREW UJIFUSA: I think she does support the standards. She doesn’t talk a lot about it. I think concerns with the Common Core on the Democratic side mostly have to do with tests that are connected to the Common Core. The unions have a lot of concerns about those tests and how they’re used.

Donald Trump has made it very clear he doesn’t like the Common Core. That reflects in particular the position of the Republican base. He has not explained why he thinks it’s a bad idea. He has said that he will get rid of the Common Core, but there’s no real clear avenue for him to do that if he’s elected.

JEFFREY BROWN: Scott Jaschik, where do you see, when you’re looking at K through 12, the kind of school reform movement that we have watched over the many years now? Where do you see these two candidates?

SCOTT JASCHIK, Inside Higher Education: I see the two candidates on school reform and actually a bit on higher ed reform in the same place.

Barack Obama very much embraced school reform, innovation, online education, new ways of delivering education. Hillary Clinton, a little more skeptical, and I think that relates to her being close to the teachers unions, as we were talking about.

Donald Trump, aside from a few speeches, has not given much detail at all.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, take us now more directly into the higher ed part, because, here, Hillary Clinton has taken a real strong position, right, with her idea for free public higher education for many.

SCOTT JASCHIK: Correct.

She’s proposing that everyone be entitled to free public tuition at public colleges in their home state if you’re from family incomes up to $125,000. That covers more than 80 percent of the population. She would give grants to states to distribute to the universities, which the states would have to match $1 for $3, so that there would be money to replace the lost tuition revenue.

JEFFREY BROWN: And this one comes with a big price tag, I saw, $500 million.

SCOTT JASCHIK: It’s a lot of money, and she has said that increased taxes on wealthier Americans would pay for it.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, what about Donald Trump? How much has he said — he has — well, he has said less, I know, in this area.

SCOTT JASCHIK: He’s said very little.

I have had two interviews with one of his top advisers, who has described a desire to reform the student loan system to have banks and colleges mutually decide who is creditworthy. He has also opposed the free public tuition, public higher education tuition, and also opposed President Obama’s free community college plan.

JEFFREY BROWN: You were telling me just before we started something interesting, that a lot of people in the higher education community are focused on Donald Trump for what he said about integration, even more than anything he said about — specifically about education.

SCOTT JASCHIK: Right.

He’s gone through several iterations, but he says he wants to make it much more difficult for people to get a visa to come to the United States for a variety of purposes, including to study. This worries U.S. academic leaders, who want and need foreign students.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, Andrew, when you look at the education — you have been following this throughout the campaign — are you surprised by how much or how little attention it has gotten and in what forms it’s gotten?

ANDREW UJIFUSA: I can’t say I’m surprised. Education is never a top-tier issue, you know, in the election. And I think that’s particularly true this go-around.

I think that we should have expected that Donald Trump would bring up the Common Core because it is such a hot-button topic, particularly in the Republican base.

It’s also important to keep in mind that we have a new federal education law that President Obama signed at the end of last year that sort of has taken education off the front burner for now in several ways.

JEFFREY BROWN: This is the Every Student Succeeds, right, Act that picked up on the No Child Left Behind. So, that was a big deal just a year ago.

ANDREW UJIFUSA: It was a big deal. It remains to be a big deal.

And it returns a lot of the control over several key policy decisions to states and districts. So there’s a little bit less for Washington to do. And states and other folks are still figuring out what exactly it means.

JEFFREY BROWN: Scott, what do you see when you look broadly at the campaign and how much this has gotten…

SCOTT JASCHIK: I think we are going to hear more about Clinton’s higher education plan. Her aides clearly see this as something that will reach middle-class voters. Many middle-class families are deeply concerned about paying for their children’s college.

And, likewise, many people in academia worry about the future of public higher education, as states have in many ways walked away from their historic obligations.

JEFFREY BROWN: And do you expect to hear more from Donald Trump as well?

SCOTT JASCHIK: I doubt we will see or hear more from Donald Trump.

One challenge he has is that, when he talks about education, people talk about Trump University. And while that’s not really typical of higher education, I don’t think his aides view that as a positive topic of discussion.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, an issue to be continued in the campaign.

Scott Jaschik and Andrew Ujifusa, thank you both very much.

ANDREW UJIFUSA: Thank you.

SCOTT JASCHIK: Thank you.

GWEN IFILL: We have compiled the candidates’ stances on education into a handy reference chart. You can find that on our Web site, PBS.org/NewsHour.

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