U.S. Education
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    Background
    Central Issues
      Prayer in School
      Evolution
      Common Core
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Background
Compulsory education in the United States traces its roots to a time well before the American Revolution, when Puritan colonies often passed laws requiring parents to instruct their children in basic literacy. In 1852, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts became the first state to enact a compulsory education law; by 1916, all other states then in the union had followed. Different states had differing rules regarding the age at which education should begin and end, what should be taught, and whether private instruction was a satisfactory substitute for attendance of a state school, but for the first time in American history, it was mandatory for children to learn.

Puritan colonial society placed great importance on literacy, because it considered it vital for people to be able to read the Holy Bible for themselves without requiring official church instruction. As a result, literacy rates around 1852 (when Massachusetts passed compulsory education) were already estimated to stand between 93% and 99%. By 2015, despite readily available free schooling, these rates have modestly declined: 86% of the modern US population is now literate, meaning that 14% of people today (about 32 million) cannot read. Just over a fifth of adults, 21%, read below a fifth-grade level, and surprisingly, 19% of people who graduate from an American high school do so without having obtained literacy.

Nevertheless, all 50 states require children to be educated, be it in a public school paid for by tax dollars, a private institution charging its own tuition, or at home (known as homeschooling). Wherever they are educated, however, the precise manner in which children spend their learning time is tightly regulated, and rife with political controversy.

Central Issues

Prayer in School
In the landmark decisions Engel v. Vitale and Abington School District v. Schemmp, occurring in 1962 and 1963, respectively, the US Supreme Court prohibited public school teachers and other faculty from leading students in prayer – prior to these decisions, it had been common for school children to be compelled to pray during mornings and perhaps at other times. Students are still permitted to pray in school, but it is unlawful for school authorities to sponsor the activity or direct anyone to engage in it.

These decisions were unpopular at the time they were made, and controversy continues to surround them. Many Americans call for the resumption of morning prayers in school, arguing that it instructs children in religious behavior (seen as a positive end unto itself or because of the beneficial effects they believe religion will have on the children's development), helps to instill discipline, and respects tradition. Opponents of school prayer echo the opinion of the Supreme Court, which in its above-cited decision stated that sponsored prayer in schools violates the Establishment Clause of the first amendment of the US Constitution by respecting an establishment of religion. Opponents also say that directing children to pray in any specific way is discriminatory and offensive towards religious traditions and belief systems that pray differently, and to atheists and agnostics who may be uncomfortable with prayer at all.

Evolution
Some religious people, primarily certain individuals of the Christian faith, consider Charles Darwin's theory of evolution to be fundamentally incompatible with the teachings of the biblical Book of Genesis, which states that God created the first man and first woman supernaturally, and that all other humans are descended from these two people. There is also resistance from some sectors to the vast time spans required for evolution, which is unacceptable to adherents of “Young Earth Creationism”, the belief that the Bible should be interpreted to give God's creation of the Earth as having occurred some 6000-10,000 years ago. These people, holding the Bible to be inerrantly true, say that evolution must or might therefore be wrong, and thus should either not be taught to school children or presented alongside alternative theories. The primary candidate put forth for this latter opinion is “Intelligent Design”, the argument that life (and perhaps the universe as a whole) is too complex to have occurred by chance, suggesting the intervention of a higher intelligence.

Opponents of this opinion argue that evolution is settled science and should be taught as such. Skeptics often retort that because evolution is merely a theory, rather than a law, it is fair to treat it as only one of several possibilities (and in fact several US state boards of education agree with this opinion, requiring schools to stamp biology textbooks with a disclaimer that warns that evolution should be approached and considered with an open mind). Supporters of teaching evolution typically dismiss this argument, citing it as evidence of ignorance of scientific terminology. They point out that unlike layman use of the word “theory”, which typically connotes wild speculation, a scientific theory is an idea that is well-supported by empirical evidence and controlled by experimental verification. Scientists also starkly differentiate between theories, which in scientific parlance are exclusively explanations detailing the reasons why a phenomenon occurs, and laws, which merely describe the phenomena themselves. For instance, gravitation – a readily observable fundamental force of nature - is a scientific law. Meanwhile relativity, which attempts to explain gravity as a distortion of the space-time continuum caused by the presence of matter, is a theory.

Common Core
The Common Core State Standards Initiative, known in brief simply as Common Core, is a set of federal educational guidelines detailing the levels of academic competence which students of a given grade should achieve, particularly in the subjects of English and mathematics. Political conservatives often oppose this initiative, arguing that it constitutes an inappropriate interference in states' educational activities (compliance is voluntary, but the federal government incentivizes state participation). Some also object to the series of aptitude tests required by Common Core, questioning the educational utility of testing, worrying that it places undue stress on children, or both.

Supporters of Common Core respond that the initiative addresses the problem of declining US educational achievement by standardizing performance expectations across all states, rather than risking different systems across the nation resulting in some ineffective teaching methods.

A majority of American parents are in favor of the Common Core initiative, though its support has been declining in recent years.

Candidates' Positions on Education


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