What are the Republican Front-Runners’ Views on Education?

Notably, GOP presidential front-runners Donald Trump and Ben Carson each lack a comprehensive education platform.

Without strong policy plans on this vital issue, Trump has captured 21 percent of GOP voter support. Carson is close behind with 20 percent, and still maintains a strong lead over other contenders. With 7 percent of GOP voter support, former governor Jeb Bush trails Carly Fiorina and Marco Rubio, who are tied with 11 percent.

Bush has a solid record on education reform for a conservative agenda. In contrast, Trump and Carson have relatively little experience, or apparent interest, in the subject of education.

What are the front-runners’ views on education policy? What might they implement or support as president?

Trump Favors Cutting Department of Education

Trump's presidential campaign website only offers commentary on the issue of immigration. He briefly discusses education in his book, The America We Deserve, published in 2000. In it, he rails against building children's self-esteem, claiming it creates students who can't spell and who end up with diplomas that equal "certificates of attendance." He says curricula have "dumbed down" important subjects, and schools have become "crime-ridden." Trump also briefly argues against teacher unions and in support of the marketplace competition that flourishes under a school choice system. He insinuates that school choice, in addition to teaching "citizenship," presents potential solutions to education problems.

Trump opposes Common Core state standards, and has criticized Jeb Bush for supporting the policy — one he equates to "Washington educating your children." Opposition to the Common Core falls in line with many Republican agendas.

Trump is also in favor of cutting the Department of Education "way, way, way down," although he does not specify how much or in what ways.

Casey Quinlan, of Think Progress, persuasively presents the case that Trump, like Marco Rubio and Chris Christie, may be in support of deregulating for-profit colleges. Trump founded Trump University in 2005, a for-profit online institution that purportedly provided a curriculum on investing. The New York State Department of Education opposed the website's use of the term "university," so the enterprise was renamed the Trump Entrepreneur Initiative. Class action lawsuits against the initiative continue. The courses did not staff professors, as the site claimed, but rather independent contractors who were paid commissions for recruiting students. These same students would pay up to $36,500 — and still not be given the investing secrets they were promised. It is not known how much money Trump collected from the operation, although the figure may come to light as court proceedings continue.

Carson Advocates Personal Responsibility

Carson's campaign website lists education as an issue, but devotes only about 150 words to the topic — hardly enough to give voters a sense of his point of view. His full statement there concludes, "Our education system must be run by involved parents and engaged teachers and principals. Any attempt by faceless federal bureaucrats to take over our local schools must be defeated."

Carson's brief statement leaves nothing to controversy. He aligns with the bipartisan education reform up for debate in the Senate, the Every Child Achieves Act. The act revises No Child Left Behind by giving more control to states, and thus local districts, with far less oversight from the federal government. This act would also do away with the Common Core, and Carson agrees with this strategy. While Carson acknowledges education as a "bedrock concept" for "realizing the American Dream," his campaign does not offer a specific plan for education-initiative implementation for elementary or secondary students, or for those in college.

Carson has supported school choice in media appearances, arguing that voucher programs and charter schools create a competitive school marketplace that eliminates public schools’ "complacency." Under a voucher system, federal funding is diverted from local public schools to the private school of a parent's choosing; this private school may, in many cases, be religious. Some school choice options also allocate education tax credits for parents and donating businesses.

When Carson was invited to give a commencement address at Emory University, students and faculty signed a petition to make known the doctor's rejection of evolution as a scientific theory. It is unclear how his own creationist stance might affect future education policy. Opponents of voucher programs find that they divert public school funds to religious schools — a scheme often found at odds with the separation of church and state and Blaine Amendments in state constitutions, which prevent religious schools from receiving tax breaks.

Whether or not education funds can be allocated for private schools varies by state. In California, public funding is not available for private schools, whereas in Nevada, it currently is, though the ACLU has filed a lawsuit to prevent those funds from being transferred to private schools that are religious in nature.

In an article Carson wrote earlier this year about the correlation between education and financial success, he advocates for personal responsibility by arguing against both free community college and, it seems, Pell Grants.

Carson writes, "Pell grants already exist to pay for community college expenses for needy students. For those who are not needy, there is an old-fashioned remedy that is very effective called work. In fact, work might even be beneficial for those who are needy." Such an argument does not, however, account for the institutionalized discrimination toward low-income and minority students. The need among underserved individuals to work for basic survival often makes education and achievement, without or without grants, impossible.

Carson currently sponsors a scholarship fund for students with academic excellence and humanitarian values, but it is not clear if or how this program would be affected by his presidency.

Bush Supports Common Core

Jeb Bush's presidential campaign website offers a brief account of his education reform platform. He describes his record on school choice in Florida and, after he left public office in 2007, his attempts to implement similar programs in additional states. Bush does not offer specific education reform goals that he would fulfill if elected president.

As governor of Florida, Bush mounted arguably the largest and most successful school choice program in the nation, though it was beset by lawsuits and continues to generate controversy. While school choice has many opponents in Florida, its implementation under Bush is considered to have significantly narrowed the achievement gap between white students and students of color.

School choice flourished largely due to Bush's rigorous testing regimes and widespread positioning of charter schools throughout the state. Currently, the state has one of the largest charter school systems in the nation, with 651 charters serving more than 250,000 students.

Bush is in favor of the total voucherization of the nation's school systems. In 2006, however, the Florida Supreme Court ruled that the state's voucher program was unconstitutional due to its violation of the separation of church and state.

Bush supports the notion of education as an "innovative" free market, as he noted at the New Hampshire Education Summit this past August: "Let the suppliers come up with the creative solutions, have high expectations and accountability, and get out of the way."

Bush also supports the Common Core, despite general opposition to the standards within the Republican Party. Also at the Education Summit, he offered in support this message: "I'm for higher standards — state-created, locally implemented — where the federal government has no role in the creation of standards, content or curriculum." The Common Core accompanies Bush's platform for rigorous academic standards, strong accountability through testing, and a vision of schools as competing marketplace commodities.

As the race progresses, candidates will likely have to define, with greater clarity, their visions for improving the American educational system. Until then, the American public has only a smattering of information about how the front-runners envision the future of learning.

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