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Hillary Clinton is planning a huge break with Obama on education

Clinton meets supporters before the Democratic debate in Iowa on Saturday night.
Clinton meets supporters before the Democratic debate in Iowa on Saturday night.
(Scott Olson/Getty Images)
Libby Nelson is Vox's policy editor, leading coverage of how government action and inaction shape American life. Libby has more than a decade of policy journalism experience, including at Inside Higher Ed and Politico. She joined Vox in 2014.

President Obama has been a major proponent of the education reform movement for the past six years, pushing the Common Core, charter schools, and state policies that evaluate teachers based in part on their students' standardized test scores.

It's becoming very clear that Hillary Clinton wouldn't follow in his footsteps.

At a roundtable with the American Federation of Teachers members in New Hampshire last week, Clinton criticized some of the major planks of the Obama administration's education policy. She also embraced the teachers unions' preferred solutions, including more federal money to educate students living in poverty and those with disabilities.

Here's what Clinton said, according to a recently released transcript from the AFT, and how it would be a break with what Obama has done:

Clinton opposes evaluating teachers on test scores

"I have for a very long time also been against the idea that you tie teacher evaluation and even teacher pay to test outcomes," Clinton said. "There's no evidence. There's no evidence. Now, there is some evidence that it can help with school performance. If everybody is on the same team and they're all working together, that's a different issue, but that's not the way it's been presented."

This is a direct shot at Obama's education policy. The Education Department pushed states to adopt policies that would link teachers' professional evaluations in part to their students' test scores.

They were swayed by economics research showing that teachers who successfully improved their students' test scores also changed their students' lives in other ways. Their students were eventually more likely to attend college, earned higher salaries, and were less likely to become pregnant as teenagers. Identifying the worst teachers and replacing them with teachers that are just average, the researchers argued, would have a lasting impact on students' lives and earnings.

The new evaluation systems are one reason students now take so many standardized tests, and Obama apologized for the emphasis his administration put on testing. And the administration recently promised to give states more flexibility on how to evaluate teachers.

Clinton, though, is going much further, saying she doesn't support policies that single out individual teachers at all — and singling out teachers, either to reward them, dismiss them, or help them improve, was a major reason behind the Obama administration's policy.

Clinton is skeptical of expanding charter schools

Clinton had already suggested she wouldn't be as big a supporter of charter schools as Obama, saying in South Carolina that they "don't take the hardest-to-teach kids. And if they do, they don't keep them."

She didn't criticize charter schools in the AFT roundtable, but she suggested she'd deemphasize them: "There are also great examples of excellent public schools, and they should equally be held up as models," she said, later adding, "They should be supplementary, not a substitute, for what goes on."

The Obama administration has pushed aggressively to expand charter schools, urging states to change laws restricting their growth. And while they've sounded a similar note to Clinton by saying that traditional public schools need to partner with and learn from charter schools, the general tone has been much more favorable to charter schools than Clinton's has been in the campaign so far.

Clinton supports more federal funding for poor students and students with disabilities

Clinton's solution for improving education sounded like ideas teachers unions have supported for years, including more federal money:

I'm going to do everything I can to raise the federal contribution. There are two big areas of federal funding that I feel strongly about. One is the special ed funding, and the other is the Title I funding, the equalization of funding for poor schools...

…Those were the earliest levels of commitment from the federal government, and we haven't really, in my view, fulfilled either one, and we've gotten diverted off into a lot of other stuff. And so, I think I would do what I can to try to provide more support.

Obama also supports these programs — his 2015 budget request included increases for Title I and special education. But he's mostly focused on competitive grants, which require states and districts to compete for funds by putting forward the best plans to meet new priorities. Clinton suggested she'd return to a more traditional approach, one the teachers unions would welcome.

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