Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump agree there are systemic problems with education in the United States.
Schools crumble in districts that cannot afford to rebuild them. The test scores of U.S. students trail their counterparts in Japan, Korea, Canada, Germany, France and other countries.
And while high school graduations are up and dropouts down, the rising cost of college has saddled many graduates with crippling debt and discouraged others from enrolling in the first place.
Of those issues – felt in South Carolina as well as nationwide – there is no dispute. But that is about where the similarities end between the education platforms of the two major U.S. presidential candidates.
Trump’s answer is offering more school choice, ridding the U.S. education system of Common Core and encouraging colleges to curb student costs.
Clinton, on the other hand, has proposed offering more pay and resources to teachers, using bonds to rebuild schools, and making college free for students from poor and working-class families.
S.C. education experts say a rollout of either platform likely would come with hiccups, not the least being that presidents generally have little control over education policy in states.
“You have the power to drive public opinion, but you don’t have a whole lot of authority to say what people or states must do,” said Marshall Jones, director of graduate studies at Winthrop University’s Riley College of Education.
Education has taken a backseat in the general election to hot-button issues, including Clinton’s emails and Trump’s debate of whether President Barack Obama was born in the United States.
Some who work in S.C. education say that is just fine. Perhaps, it shows the two candidates might take a much-welcomed hands-off approach to schools, they say.
More federal money would be great under the next president, S.C. education leaders say. But they want no strings attached, especially after the Every Student Succeeds Act signed last year gave states more control over their own standards.
But some conservatives fear Clinton’s election would would bring back the days of heightened federal influence under the No Child Left Behind Act, passed under Republican President George W. Bush.
“We’d probably see a growing federal role, growing federal mandates, probably a return to Common Core,” said Oran Smith, president of Palmetto Family Council and a Coastal Carolina University trustee.
Democrats contend Clinton has worked in education her whole life and that Trump’s policies offer more sizzle than steak.
“He’s dusted off a political playbook for anti-public education,” said Democrat Inez Tenenbaum, a former S.C. schools chief. “That shows you he does not even understand how the public education system works.”
Clinton has promised better training and pay for teachers, a $2 billion investment to close the so-called “school-to-prison pipeline” and universal preschool.
Those offerings fit nicely with South Carolina’s needs, Tenenbaum said.
“We have so many schools in the Abbeville School District lawsuit that need federal support to help them become modernized facilities,” she said. “South Carolina also has a very difficult time recruiting teachers to rural areas, and she will recognize that.”
Of all of Clinton’s proposals, a plan to rebuild crumbling schools might be the biggest boost in South Carolina, Winthrop’s Jones said.
“It would provide jobs, and that would run the economic engine,” Jones said.
Trump, on the other hand, sees school choice – and abolishing Common Core, already gone from South Carolina – as the fix.
The New York businessman has pledged to spend $20 billion in his first year in office to help low-income families send their children to local charter or magnet schools, public or private – a proposal Clinton has said would decimate public schools.
A voucher system, favored by some legislative Republicans, would be groundbreaking in South Carolina.
Students in the majority of S.C. districts now have the choice of attending another public charter or magnet school. But only special-needs students can get taxpayer money to pay tuition at a private school.
School-choice advocates say S.C. students would win if they could pick a learning environment that meets their needs.
“We can’t continue to do education the way we’ve always done it and think we’re going to prepare students to compete for jobs in the 21st century,” said Ellen Weaver, president of the Palmetto Promise Institute education foundation.
Trump and Clinton publicly have shared empathy toward students faced with rising costs. The problem is felt in the Palmetto State, where borrowers leave school with an average of $30,564 in debt, the ninth-highest in the country.
“We’ve got to get the cost down or else we’re going to price out a lot of our students who need a two-year or four-year degree,” S.C. Education Oversight Committee executive director Melanie Barton said.
Trump has proposed working with Congress to offer federal dollars and tax breaks to colleges who keep tuition bills in check.
Clinton, on the other hand, has proposed making tuition free at public colleges and universities for families with incomes lower than $125,000 a year. Her proposal also would cut interest rates on student loans and make community college free.
Under that plan, the college-heavy Midlands — with more than 50,000 college students now — likely would see an influx of students who previously could not afford college and others who previously were considering private college, according to USC economist Joseph Von Nessen.
But colleges without the capacity to handle the enrollment jumps might have to raise admission standards, raise tuition for non-eligible students or request more state money, he said.
Still, officials say, voters interested in education policy should spend more time evaluating down-ballot State House and school board candidates.
“A lot of the things that happen in Washington, D.C., change the way we do things here in some way, shape or form,” S.C. Education Department spokesman Ryan Brown said. “But the biggest thing is to elect good local leaders.”