Washington Week

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Trump vs. Clinton: Education

By Jenna Goff and Joan Greve
Washington Week Fellows

As Donald Trump batted away questions about his tax returns this week, Hillary Clinton was asked to explain her thoughts on Bernie Sanders’ supporters. In a leaked recording from a February fundraiser, Clinton said of Sanders’ millennial base, "They feel they got their education and the jobs that are available to them are not at all what they envisioned for themselves. And they don’t see much of a future." Trump responded by calling Clinton “nasty to Sanders supporters behind closed doors.”

So how would the presidential candidates improve higher education and all the schooling that comes before that? We compared their plans:


School choice

School choice, which allows public funds to follow students and their families to any school – public or private -- that best fits their needs, is at the heart of Trump’s education platform. At a September speech in Cleveland, he announced that as president, he would be “the nation’s biggest cheerleader for school choice.” His goal is to provide the measure to every school-aged child living in poverty.

Trump’s education platform outlines a plan to immediately allot a federal investment of $20 billion towards school choice by “reprioritizing existing federal dollars.” He will give states the option to allow these funds to follow a student to the school of their choice, thus favoring states that implement the policy.

Clinton’s stance on the issue is not as hardline. In her 1996 memoir, It Takes a Village, she wrote that she favored “promoting choice among public schools, much as the President’s Charter Schools Initiative encourages” (Bill Clinton’s administration was a large proponent of charter schools.) More recently, however, she has pivoted to critiquing for-profit charter schools, saying in November that they "don't take the hardest-to-teach kids, or, if they do, they don't keep them.”

In July, Clinton’s comments that public schools and charter schools should share ideas was met with boos at the National Education Association’s annual conference. She then shifted to make a distinction between charter schools in general and schools run by for-profit companies. Her lack of support for these latter schools indicate that her school choice opinions are not as fluid as Trump’s. While she favors the policy to an extent, Clinton focuses more on choice between solely publicly-funded schools.


College loan debt

Clinton’s education platform focuses predominantly on allowing college students to graduate debt-free. She recently teamed up with her primary rival Bernie Sanders (who largely built his campaign on the promise of free college education) to tout her debt-free plan.

Under her plan, families with yearly income up to $125,000 would pay no tuition at in-state four-year public colleges and universities by 2021. And from the beginning of a Clinton administration, families with income up to $85,000 would be able to send a student to such a college for free. Additionally, all community colleges would offer free tuition. While such a plan would cost $500 billion over a decade, the campaign plans to cover it by closing tax loopholes that benefit the rich.

For those who currently have student loan debt, Clinton would cut interest rates so that the government doesn’t profit from student loans and allow borrowers to refinance loans at current rates. Additionally, she would take executive action to create a payroll deduction portal for employers and employees to simplify the repayment process and establish a three-month postponement of student loan payments to all federal loan borrowers.

Trump’s plan to reduce college debt is less cut and dried. While his platform states he would “work with Congress on reforms to ensure universities are making a good faith effort to reduce the cost of college and student debt,” he has not yet unveiled a detailed plan to do so. In a September speech, he did announce that he would pressure institutions with large endowments to spend more on students or lose their tax-free status. However, the large majority of college students enroll in universities without large endowments.


Increased federal funding

Federal funding to public schools features prominently in both nominees’ education plans, but Trump and Clinton have very different ideas on what to do with that money. Under Trump’s plan, a school system’s access to federal funding would be tied to its implementation of school choice. He calls for reallocating federal funds to a student’s school preference, whether it be private or public, which would incentivize states to embrace school choice in order to receive more funding.

Clinton has called for an increase in federal funding for a multitude of efforts that would help young children and childcare workers. Under her plan, home-visit programs and Head Start and Early Head Start would receive twice as much federal funding. Home-visit programs coach parents to help their young children get ready for school. Head Start and Early Head Start offer children from poor families nutritional and educational support that they may not receive otherwise. Clinton would also use increased state funding to increase the wages of childcare workers and instate universal pre-K for four-year-olds.



Clinton has made universal preschool a central feature of her education policy, building upon policy she pursued as both the first lady of Arkansas and a New York senator. Currently, only about half of preschool-eligible children are enrolled, and Clinton has pledged to make “high-quality preschool” available to all American children within ten years of her election.

Preschool has figured less in Trump’s education plan, but his child care policy does allow for lower-income families to put earned income tax money towards “child enrichment activities.” His running mate, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, has much more firsthand experience with implementing preschool standards. In 2014, he started Indiana’s On My Way Pre-K program and offered scholarships to over 2,000 low-income children to participate. But Pence’s refusal to accept federal funds to expand the program, which he has recently said he would be open to reconsidering, somewhat dampened its positive reception.


Common Core

The Common Core, “a set of high-quality academic standards in mathematics and English language arts/literacy,” has become a hotly debated topic in education policy. While its advocates argue that the standards create benchmarks so that all high school students graduate with certain skills critical for college or their careers, opponents say that it represents yet another unnecessary intrusion from the federal government.

Trump sides squarely with the Republican Party on the issue. In one of his campaign ads, he called Common Core “a total disaster” and has said that he would get rid of it. Trump’s education policy also seems to imply that he blames the implementation of Common Core, at least in part, for America’s falling international rankings in education. He has instead argued for local governments to decide best practices for their school districts.

Clinton’s stance on Common Core has been more nuanced. During an April Newsday interview, she was hesitant to argue for its repeal but argued for improvements in the tests used to measure schools’ performance. She also stated that, in its current form, Common Core’s tests are not “good enough” to determine a teacher’s continued employment, as they have been used in some states. The Democratic nominee finally encouraged explaining to concerned parents how the standardized expectations could work to their children’s benefit.

Explore previous Trump vs. Clinton issues: 
Criminal Justice Reform
Health Care
Gun Control
Fighting Terrorism