Education has long been a big issue for the Democratic Party, but at the convention here this week it has been largely overshadowed by other pressing topics, such as national security and the economy.
When Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, the leading voice among Senate Democrats on education, delivered his lengthy remarks July 27 to the nearly 5,000 delegates and alternates, he offered just a couple of brief nods to the subject.
Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York, who serves with Mr. Kennedy on the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, made no mention of education in her prime time slot opening night, focusing instead on health care and homeland security. And her husband made only passing reference to it in that evening’s capstone speech, criticizing his successor, President Bush, for not supporting what Democrats believe is adequate school funding.
As for the prime-time speeches by former Vice President Al Gore and former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, or by the governors of Michigan and Pennsylvania? Nothing, or next to nothing, on education.
“There are a lot of other issues crowding education,” said Edward J. McElroy, the president of the American Federation of Teachers and a superdelegate (a delegate not bound by the decisions of party primaries or caucuses) from Rhode Island, though he added that his group is working hard to keep the issue on the campaign agenda.
Consistent with tradition, both Mr. McElroy and Reg Weaver, the head of the National Education Association, spoke to the convention, but those speeches were less than five minutes each and not scheduled during prime time.
“If you look at the world we live in and the issues that are facing this country right now, certainly national security has got to be the top issue, the economy has got to be a top issue,” Mr. McElroy said. “And then, of course, the health-care crisis.”
He added, “When you talk to delegates and you talk to political representatives here, you realize that education can’t be second place. There’s just a lot of noise about other issues right now.”
Larry J. Sabato, the director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia, said education has been marginalized in this convention, in sharp contrast to the Democratic campaign and convention four years ago.
Issues like the war and the economy are dominating the presidential election for Democrats, who see vulnerabilities in President Bush on those issues, according to Mr. Sabato.
“The other issues are just footnotes,” he said. “Even health care is not playing as large a role as I thought it would [at the convention]. ... The other factor at work here is that Democrats know they can take educators for granted.”
Both major teachers’ unions have thrown their support behind the Kerry campaign.
“But to make educators feel better,” Mr. Sabato added, “lots of fundamental issues are footnotes this year.”
Of course, education has received some airtime at the convention. Beyond the teachers’ union leaders, New Mexico’s secretary of education, Veronica Garcia, spoke on July 28.
And Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, officially nominated July 28th as the party’s vice presidential candidate, offered a few remarks on education in his address.
“We shouldn’t have two public school systems in this country: one for the most affluent communities, and one for everybody else,” he said, echoing speeches he has made before. “We can build one school system that works for all our kids, gives them a chance to do what they’re capable of doing. Our plan will reform our schools and raise standards. We can give our schools the resources that they need.”
In the speech, he added, “We can provide incentives to put our best teachers in the subjects and the places where we need them the most.”
He also briefly mentioned a tax break for families to help pay for college education.
Earlier that evening, Rep. Chaka Fattah of Pennsylvania dedicated his relatively brief speech to school matters.
“On education, Democrats have a different approach,” he said. “We believe that we shouldn’t have resources without reform, but we can’t have reform without resources. That if children are going to be tested they should have qualified teachers. If they’re expected to learn, they should have the right to expect a textbook.”
He added, “The presidency of John Kerry will allow tens of millions of young people, as Dr. [Martin Luther] King [Jr.] said, to be architects of their own lives.”