WASHINGTON — THE ISSUE: Hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars are spent each year on the country’s public schools. The U.S. has record-high graduation rates, 82 percent, 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.

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WHERE THEY STAND

Hillary Clinton has made the soaring costs of college her primary education 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 for taxpayers. To counter the crush of student debt, she also wants to implement a three-month moratorium on loan payments for all federal borrowers. During that time, borrowers would be able to consolidate their loans or enroll in other plans that could help cut costs.

Donald Trump has railed against the Common Core academic standards that have been adopted in more than 40 states, calling them a “total disaster.” He’s pledged to do away with them if elected, even though the standards were created and adopted by states, not the federal government. Trump says he wants to see more local control of education. He’s vowed to give students choice, let charter schools thrive and end tenure policies “that reward bad teachers.”

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WHY IT MATTERS

Just 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 percent 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 — both Republican and Democratic — 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 and practices. 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, but the Education Department still plays an oversight role. 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, which will examine three dozen issues at stake in the presidential election between now and Election Day. You can find them at: http://apne.ws/2bBG85a

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