Fact-Checking Carly Fiorina: Her K-12 Ideas Don’t Make the Grade

One of the many weird aspects of the current GOP presidential contest is the sudden popularity of candidates with essentially zero experience in public service. As Ed Kilgore pointed out yesterday, the “non-politician candidates” — Donald Trump Ben Carson, and Carly Fiorina — command 42 percent of the support in the Fox News post-debate poll, a situation for which there is no obvious precedent in modern presidential politics. (Successful non-political candidates of the past, like Dwight Eisenhower, actually had extensive government management experience, while true public service virgins like Herman Cain and Steve Forbes didn’t run in the same cycle.)

While the “no experience required” nature of the GOP race clearly reflects the frustration of base Republican voters with their party’s establishment, the obvious danger for presidential candidates who haven’t actually served in government is that they might betray ignorance of the substance of the issues. Yesterday in New Hampshire, one of these non-politician candidates, Carly Fiorina had the chance to settle some of those concerns when she spoke at the New Hampshire Education Summit, a candidate forum hosted by the pro-voucher group the American Federation of Children and the education news website The Seventy Four and moderated by former CNN anchor Campbell Brown. The summit consisted of a series of 45-minute individual interviews where the contenders—Fiorina plus five of her fellow Republican presidential candidates, all current or former governors: Jeb Bush, John Kasich, Chris Christie, Scott Walker, Bobby Jindal–answered questions about K-12 education. But her answers made it evident that if she wants to speak accurately on issues like education, she’s going to need more or better briefing in the future.

Many of her responses in the Q&A stuck to the same GOP talking points the other candidates mostly stuck to, criticizing the Common Core standards and an overinvolved Department of Education. Her biggest argument? Increased federal spending on education hasn’t led to substantive improvement.

“Let’s talk about what’s not working. It’s pretty obvious what’s not working. The Department of Education has gotten more money every year for roughly 30 years, and yet these income disparity gaps I described are getting worse. We’re not improving in terms of our achievement rates relevant to other nations. So we know factually speaking that when Washington spends more money, the quality of education in this nation does not improve.

What Fiorina said, however, is factually inaccurate, even if it plays to common misperceptions about our “failing” public schools. According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), which education experts generally agree is the most reliable measure of K-12 attainment, reading scores for American nine year olds have increase by 12 points, or an entire grade level, and math scores have gone up 24 points, or two grade levels, since the early 1970s. And the disparities between advantaged and disadvantaged students she says have widened have in fact narrowed: black and Latino students’ test scores have risen faster than white scores. Though the topline NAEP scores are flat, making it seem like there has been little progress, as the conservative American Enterprise Institute has pointed out this is a statistical quirk arising from the fact that in recent decades the percentage of students who are affluent and white (and generally score relatively high) has decreased while the percentage who are lower-income and minority (and generally score relatively low) has increased. In fact, NAEP scores for all subgroups have increased substantially, during the same period that federal spending and involvement has grown.

As Kevin Drum has noted, Republicans are especially prone to thinking that schools are in decline, despite test scores showing otherwise. Fiorina, it seems, can count herself among them.

A great deal of Fiorina’s responses centered around promoting school choice, going so far as to say that if elected, she would surround herself with people who have built successful charter schools. When asked about challenges to choice, she pointed to federal programs like the Obama administration’s Race to the Top.

Federal government money is being used to pick winners and losers. You see a program like Race to the Top being used to determine, ‘Well, you’re doing it the way we want you to do it, so you get federal money’ and ‘You’re not doing it the way we want you to do it, so you don’t get federal money.’ That’s not going to work. The truth is more federal money ought to flow out of Washington D.C. into the states, and money at the state level ought to flow into the community level.”

Race to the Top, a so-called barrier to school choice, awarded grants to states for lifting their caps on charter schools, effectively providing incentives for states to offer more choices and create innovative programs, the very things Fiorina is advocating.

The moderator, Campbell Brown, didn’t call Fiorina on this discrepancy. Nor did she seem to notice a number of flat out inaccuracies. For instance, when asked about best examples of school improvement, Fiorina cited Boston:

“The school district of Boston has had some great luck…not luck…great achievement with vouchers, charter schools, magnet schools, where the income disparities between achievement has been narrowed.”

In fact, Boston has no voucher program because the Massachusetts state constitution bans public money going to private and parochial schools, a ban conservative pro-voucher groups like the Pioneer Institute are lobbying to overturn.

Brown did, however, did push the former Hewlett-Packard CEO to explain how if elected she would achieve her goals, like greater school choice, while at the same time taking power away from the federal government. What about states and cities where strong teachers unions oppose the growth of charter schools? Fiorina replied with a lengthy critique of teachers unions and “Democrat Party” support for them, but didn’t directly answer the moderator’s question.

But Brown, to her credit, persisted:

“I’m going to press you on this a little bit…again, as president, how do you do it if you want to relinquish power essentially?…Do you believe in using federal dollars to incentivize states to adopt vouchers or expand their charter programs?”

Fiorina responded by appealing to principle. As a conservative, she said, she believes the federal government should act with restraint and shouldn’t do everything it technically has the power to do. The mandates that come with federal dollars, like those in Race to the Top and Common Core, she said, become “a method for standardizing everybody.” Instead, she insisted, Washington should leave responsibility for things like education to state and local governments and concentrate on on the areas only the federal government can do:

“Only the federal government can secure the border. Only the federal government … the federal government’s responsibility is to repair roads and bridges.”

In fact, the vast majority of roads and bridges in America are owned and maintained by state and local governments, with the federal government picking up only 24 percent of all surface transportation costs, mostly for interstate highways and mass transit systems.

Celeste Bott

Celeste Bott is an intern at Washington Monthly.