Funds to Push Education as Election Issue
Foundations unveil major campaign to raise topic’s profile in presidential race.
As education competes with a host of other issues for attention during the 2008 presidential-election season, two prominent foundations unveiled a plan last week to spend up to $60 million on an ambitious campaign to ensure strong billing for education, and to help shape debate on the subject.
The nonpartisan effort, backed by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Broad Foundation, appears to be one of the most costly single-issue campaigns undertaken during a presidential race. The 18-month campaign was announced in Columbia, S.C., a day before Democratic presidential candidates met there for an April 26 debate.
The philanthropies have tapped political heavyweights from both major parties to help get the message across. Former Gov. Roy Romer of Colorado, a Democrat, is the campaign’s chairman, and its executive director is Marc S. Lampkin, a Republican lobbyist who was deputy campaign director for George W. Bush during the 2000 election.
“We want to get all the candidates to [move beyond] the pablum of ‘better schools and better teachers,’ ” Eli Broad, the founder of the Broad Foundation, said in an interview. “We’ve got to wake up the American people to understand their economic security is at stake.”
The core elements of the Strong American Schools campaign, with the slogan “Ed in ’08,” are to promote high and consistent academic standards across the states, to create incentives to ensure all classrooms have high-quality teachers, and to provide more time and support for learning.
“We will use the tactics and techniques of the modern campaign,” Mr. Lampkin said. “We’re literally going to be a constant presence in and around where the candidates are going to be.”
Some analysts said it won’t be easy to keep the candidates focused on education.
“The number-one issue is Iraq,” said Larry J. Sabato, who heads the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia. He suggested that several other issues also will be vying for limited attention beyond the war, including health care, global warming, and abortion.
“Personally, I do not believe the agenda is all that much moved by these issue campaigns,” Mr. Sabato said.
But others said that even if education isn’t a top-tier priority, the foundations’ initiative is likely to give the issue substantially greater prominence than it otherwise would have.
“With those kind of dollars behind it, they can make a lot of noise, and they’re likely to get a significant amount of attention,” said Whit Ayres, a national Republican strategist.
If the April 26 debate among Democratic candidates was any indication, the new campaign has a big task ahead. The moderator asked no questions about improving schools, and the presidential contenders barely mentioned the issue.
Replaces ‘Stand Up’
The philanthropies’ effort comes a year after the Seattle-based Gates Foundation, which has awarded about $1.7 billion this decade toward its agenda for improving high schools, first unveiled a campaign called Stand Up. The announcement of that public-engagement effort was pegged to two April 2006 programs that “The Oprah Winfrey Show” devoted to education.
At the time, organizers promised extensive activities across the nation for an aggressive public-awareness campaign, but since then little had occurred publicly. Shortly after Stand Up was launched, the Los Angeles-based Broad Foundation signed on as a co-funder. ("Campaign Seeks Buy-In for High School Reforms," April 19, 2006 and "PR Campaign for Better Schooling Keeps Low Profile Since Its Debut," Jan. 31, 2007.)
Stand Up has now been transformed into the Strong American Schools campaign, which is more specifically focused on influencing how candidates handle education in the 2008 campaign and stirring what the organizers hope will be a groundswell of public support and pressure.
“This is not the same as Stand Up,” Mr. Romer said in an interview. “They announced it and didn’t do anything with it.”
Mr. Romer brings an unusual background to the job; he was a governor for three terms, and until last year superintendent of the nation’s second-largest school system, the Los Angeles Unified School District. He was the general chairman of the Democratic National Committee from 1997 to 2000.
As a nonprofit organization incorporated under section 501(c)(3) of the federal tax code, Strong American Schools is not permitted to endorse or oppose candidates, and cannot take positions on any particular legislation.
Some political analysts said the new effort appears unique, especially in its size and emphasis.
“I don’t believe there is any precedent for this type of issue campaign in the context of a presidential election,” said Thomas E. Mann, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank. He said he knew of no other effort “of this magnitude to shape the agenda of a presidential campaign without supporting or opposing specific candidates.”
The campaign is calling for “American education standards,” though organizers emphasize that they’re not talking about mandatory federal academic-content standards or a national curriculum.
“There needs to be consistency across state lines,” Mr. Romer said.
The campaign favors changing teacher compensation—including through some forms of performance-based or market-conscious pay—and improving their advancement opportunities.
“We need to pay more for teachers with certain subject-matter skills, for teachers teaching in challenged schools,” Mr. Romer said. “We also need to measure the effectiveness of teachers, not by one simple test, … and compensate those for proven performance.”
The campaign is also calling for more time and support for learning, including extended school days and school years.
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