Personal tools
You are here: Home Just News from Center X Just Talk: Voices of Education and Justice Election Matters: Kevin Welner

Election Matters

Just Talk: Voices of Education and Justice

Election Matters


Kevin WelnerThis week, Center X is happy to share a Q&A with Kevin Welner about the importance of Tuesday’s presidential election for federal education policy. Dr. Welner is a professor of education at the University of Colorado Boulder School of Education and director of the National Education Policy Center (NEPC). Welner’s research centers on the uses (and misuses) of research in policymaking contexts as well as the intersection between educational opportunities, equity-minded reforms, and educational rights legislation. As the director of NEPC, he has helped foster the production and dissemination of high-quality research and policy briefs, written in accessible language intended for broad audiences. Before entering the field of education, Welner obtained his J.D. from UCLA and practiced law for a number of years in Los Angeles. In this interview, Center X spoke to Welner regarding possible implications of our imminent elections for federal educational policy.

It seems like there has not been much talk about K-12 education policy in this year's presidential election. Do you agree, and if so, why do you think this is?

Kevin Welner: To some extent, this is just a byproduct of an election that is largely about Mr. Trump’s extraordinary comments and behavior. The public and media attention, and the debate questions, have focused on those things as well as Secretary Clinton’s emails. The result is that education policy hasn’t been fleshed out, and similarly we have not heard much about economic plans, energy policy, foreign policy, tax policy, policies that address poverty, climate change and environmental policy, and so forth. That said, some information about Clinton’s education policies can be found via the education button at and some information—albeit even less—about Trump’s are at

In what ways will the presidential election (and the determination of the House and Senate majorities) influence existing federal education policies?

As we know, most education policy is set at the state and local levels, and the new ESSA law has moved authority even further back a bit to those venues. Other federal laws are also potentially in play, but who knows? The No Child Left Behind Act had been up for re-authorization since 2007, and Congress finally accomplished that feat in December of 2015. So these things are hard to predict. But the Perkins Career and Technical Education Act is now up for re-authorization, and a re-authorization of the Higher Education Act is overdue. Those are things that could certainly happen. In addition, some clear policy initiatives have emerged from the two main presidential campaigns.

For Clinton, there will almost certainly be a push for universal, high-quality pre-school for 4-year-old children. She has also set forth definite plans for debt-free higher education. Her plans for K-12 education are somewhat less definite. For Trump, his emphasis has been almost entirely on increasing school choice. He has also said that the Department of Education could be “largely eliminated.”

Beyond those specific policies, the regulatory framework for ESSA implementation would, of course, be very different in the hands of Clinton versus Trump, as would the enforcement activities (or lack thereof) of the Office of Civil Rights.Because the Supreme Court’s influence over education has been huge over the years, we should also note that Senate control could greatly impact our schools, playing out long into the future.

What forces—from the grassroots, grasstops, labor, academia, or elsewhere—might  promote more progressive educational policies in the next administration?

I expect that Clinton is likely, if left to her instincts, to continue many of the largely neoliberal policies of the past two Democratic administrations. She does have an education agenda that’s relatively fleshed out, particularly for higher education, but there are many areas that are still undefined. My guess is that she’d govern in a cautious way that follows popular opinion and that pursues what she thinks is actually do-able (this is the “pragmatic” part of her self-labeling as a “pragmatic progressive”).Trump is obviously more erratic, but I expect that he, too, would govern in a way that is somewhat responsive to popular opinion.

So, for either of these two candidates, the context is important. FDR once said, after a meeting with activists who were pushing for legislation, “You’ve convinced me. Now go out and make me do it.” That’s the key, I think: no matter who is president, the context – the water they will be swimming in – is extremely important. So these groups that you’re asking about can, I think, be most effective by focusing on the ways that education is discussed and understood. Progressive education policies will follow from a progressive educational environment, where values and beliefs about what should be done and how to accomplish those goals—where all of that is shaped by the powerful and genuine voices of the people in the communities that are most impacted by the policies. We can look to the past to see how important this is. In some ways, such as anti-poverty programs, the Nixon administration was more progressive than the Obama administration. That’s certainly not because Nixon was more enlightened; it’s because Nixon was governing within a more progressive context in those areas.

You touched upon how the frameworks for ESSA implementation would be very different in a Clinton or Trump administration, along with enforcement activities of the Office of Civil Rights (OCR). While this is clearly a huge topic, in what ways do you foresee these areas possibly playing out differently across administrations?

The OCR is tasked with enforcing a wide variety of civil rights laws and regulations, and it has a great deal of discretion in doing so. The recent Bush administration was broadly understood to be an unfriendly forum for complaints other than so-called reverse-discrimination complaints. The Obama administration has pursued civil rights complaints much more aggressively, particularly under current assistant secretary Catherine Lhamon. Think here about the OCR’s “Dear Colleague” guidance letters in areas like sex discrimination, racial discrimination and school discipline. The guidance issued earlier this year regarding discrimination under Title IX against students who are transgender (which is currently being challenged in court) is another prominent example. I think it’s safe to assume that this course will not be continued under a President Trump but would likely be continued under a President Clinton.

The ESSA implementation rule-making and enforcement is somewhat more difficult to predict, in part because neither candidate has, to my knowledge, spoken directly on the topic—and in part because partisan differences are not as clear cut. Republicans are on record as favoring a lighter federal touch with more local control, particularly having bristled under Secretary Duncan’s aggressive role. But my hunch is that the Department of Education under either administration would be deferential in some areas and authoritative in others—with the particular areas differing by candidate.

You suggested that there would be a great degree of continuity from the Obama administration to a Clinton administration. Over the past year or so, however, Clinton has said very little to express support for charters—on her Education website page, for instance, there is not one word about charter schools. From that page, in a linked address from earlier this year, she made only one mention of supporting successful charter schools while giving much more attention to the need for properly funding traditional public education systems. Do you believe that a Clinton administration will be less supportive of charter expansion than Obama's administration has been? Do you foresee any other possible substantial departures or interruptions in this continuity? 

I’ll answer this question assuming that Clinton is elected, which is by no means assured. Just as candidate Obama did, candidate Clinton is seeking counsel from two very different but supportive constituencies. On the one hand, she’s being supported by quite a few top hedge fund managers and by groups like “Democrats for Education Reform” – people and groups that strongly favor the growth of charters. But she’s also being supported by both major teachers unions, which would like to see greater regulation of charter schools and of their growth. Clinton has always been seen as someone who supports charter schools with very little caution or skepticism. But with groups like the NAACP and the Movement for Black Lives raising serious concerns, and with the leaders of the teachers unions providing balance among those with access to Clinton, I think it’s likely that she’ll support modest steps toward greater access, transparency, and accountability for charters.

Of course, at this stage we just don’t know. After Obama took office, he handed the education-policy keys over to Secretary Duncan, and the idea of balanced voices (referred to during the campaign as the “team of rivals”) was tossed out the window. We will see, upon the naming of a Clinton Secretary of Education, if she’ll do the same. Choosing, for example, Catherine Brown, the VP of Education Policy at the Center for American Progress, would signal that Clinton wants to continue with a Duncan-like approach with little skepticism toward charter schools (or toward policies grounded in test-based accountability). To be honest, the Secretary of Education pick will not be easy; two powerful branches of Clinton’s supporters simply do not see eye to eye on education, and finding the right person to reflect and merge those voices in a balanced way will be a real challenge—but, I think, very important.



Go to this week's issue of Just News from Center X.

Document Actions

UCLA Center X
1320 Moore Hall, Box 951521
Los Angeles, CA 90095-1521
(310) 825-4910