How Seriously To Take Clinton’s Education Shifts

Clinton’s NEA speech could bring in more support from teachers.

Candidate Hillary Clinton speaking to the NEA last week. (Click here if video doesn’t load properly.)

Last week, Hillary Clinton spoke to the National Education Association (above), which has endorsed her, and endorsed a version of the Bernie Sanders free college plan. If news accounts are correct, Sanders is scheduled to endorse Clinton at a New Hampshire high school tomorrow.

But just how much candidate has Clinton moved towards Sanders (and the many teachers who support him) on education issues — and what impact that will have on how she would govern as President — remains unclear.

This isn’t a minor or isolated question. How to cover campaign rhetoric — how seriously to take it — is a frequent challenge for reporters,  be they political reporters or education journalists. And it’s come up several times in recent months. Some may recall how differently reporters covered Clinton’s November 2015 AFT roundtable. It will likely come up again this summer and fall.

One set of news stories about Clinton’s recent NEA appearance focused on the smattering of boos that came up when Clinton dared to mention charter schools and urged those attending to move beyond the long-running education debate that’s divided Democrats for several years now: Teachers union boos Clinton for her embrace of charters (Washington Post), Clinton’s charter school comments prompt boos at teachers union event (Politico).

The Washington Post’s Valerie Strauss noted that some of the opposition to Clinton’s speech stemmed from concerns from reform critics about the Democratic platform’s education language.

The Atlantic’s Emily Deruy described the speech as an attempt to “distance herself just enough from President Obama to attract teachers, but not so much as to alienate his supporters” — and noted that Clinton would hours later campaign with Obama in North Carolina.

However, at least one mainstream piece — Dana Goldstein’s story in Slate — suggested that Clinton had moved much further towards teachers and Sanders than it might have appeared. In this piece, (Hillary Clinton is the teachers’ candidate. What changed?), Goldstein asserts “It’s safe to say it is a new day for the Democratic Party on education policy. On Twitter, she called Clinton’s remarks “the first big k-12 education speech of the general election, a shift for the Democratic Party.”

At least some observers were eager to agree with that assessment. In a Thursday email blast, the AFT touted Goldstein’s take on Clinton speech at NEA convention.

But Goldstein’s take was something of an outlier, and not everyone—including reform critic Diane Ravitch—thought Goldstein’s analysis was solid.

“Goldstein’s conclusion is premature,” according to Ravitch, who noted that it remained to be seen how far Clinton had moved.

Even if it represented a shift in rhetoric, it was meaningless, noted Ravitch commenter Joe Nashville, pointing to a 2007 Obama speech to the NEA railing against overtesting students:

Obama speaking about testing to the NEA in 2007.

It’s worth noting, as Vox’s Libby Nelson and others have claimed, that campaign rhetoric is actually more indicative of policy positions candidates take in office than some cynics might anticipate. And to be fair, Goldstein hedged her bets later on in the piece, noting that the speech was only “a potentially meaningful shift.”

Reached via Twitter, Goldstein explained further: “The piece was about a speech, and thus, a new day in the language used by leading Democrats to talk about education.”

“On the other hand,” she wrote, “I agree that we’ll have to wait to see how a President Hillary would govern to make a full accounting of her policy commitments.”

Related posts:
Different Ways To Cover Campaign Rhetoric
Comparing Coverage of Clinton-AFT Meeting
2 Things About That NYT “Hillary Being Squeezed” Piece

Alexander Russo

Alexander Russo is a freelance education writer who has created several long-running blogs such as the national news site This Week In Education, District 299 (about Chicago schools), and LA School Report. He can be reached on Twitter at @alexanderrusso, on Facebook, or directly at alexanderrusso@gmail.com.