10/21/2016 23:21 EDT | Updated 10/22/2017 01:12 EDT


WASHINGTON — THE ISSUE: Hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars are spent each year on the country's public schools. The U.S. has a record-high graduation rates, 83 per cent, but also stubborn achievement gaps and dismally lagging math and reading scores compared with other countries. And university degrees are leaving millions mired in debt. Few issues touch the lives of families like the state of education.



Hillary Clinton has made the soaring costs of college a primary focus. She has proposed free tuition at in-state public colleges and universities for working families with incomes up to $125,000. Of course, that's only free for student and families, not taxpayers. To counter the crush of student debt, she also wants to implement a three-month moratorium on loan payments. During that time, federal borrowers would be able to consolidate their loans or enrol in other plans that could help cut costs. Clinton also wants to make preschool universal for all 4-year-old children within 10 years by providing new federal dollars to states.

Donald Trump has pledged to do away with the Common Core academic standards that have been adopted in more than 40 states, even though the standards were created by states, not the federal government. He proposes to spend $20 billion during his first year in office to help states expand school choice programs. He wants states to divert an additional $110 billion of their own education money to support school choice. On student debt, Trump has promised to cap payments at 12.5 per cent of a borrower's income, if elected. After 15 years of payments, the loan would be forgiven.



Look at the numbers.

About 100,000 public schools opened their doors to some 50 million students in kindergarten through high school in the new school year.

The bill for taxpayers: $582 billion, or about $11,670 per pupil each year, on average, to teach those students and set them on a path toward college or careers. About 10 per cent of that money comes from the federal government. The rest is from states and local districts, facing ever-tight budgets.

The Obama administration and others before it have preached the importance of a quality education that opens the door to opportunity and success. Yet the cost of college is rising, leaving students saddled with debt. And some who have attended for-profit schools have seen their degrees rendered virtually worthless, with the government picking up the tab for discharging their student loans.

There's no doubt that better educated students more often get better paying jobs. The median annual earnings for someone age 25 to 34 with no high school diploma is $40,000. For those with a bachelor's degree or higher, it's $52,000.

The good news: High school graduation rates are up sharply and dropout rates are down.

The bad: Progress for the nation's schoolkids isn't nearly on pace with other countries. This has implications well beyond bragging rights. A country that's trailing others in education will lag in international competitiveness and that will contribute to economic hardship. And within the U.S., there are challenging gaps by race and wealth, for achievement and more.

Globally, American schoolchildren trail their counterparts in Japan, Korea, Canada, Germany, France and more.

Education remains primarily the responsibility of the states, even though the federal government can use its pocketbook to influence policies. The Obama administration issued waivers and grants through programs like Race to the Top to get its say on academic standards and other issues.

A law enacted last year with bipartisan support has vastly diminished the powers of the federal government in how the county's schools are run and their performance judged. While the current administration has started putting the law into place, it will be up to the next president to finish the process.


This story is part of AP's "Why It Matters" series, examining three dozen issues at stake in the presidential election. You can find the series at

EDITOR'S NOTE _ One in an AP series examining issues at stake in the presidential election and how they affect people