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Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform.

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How Public Concern on Education This Year Compares to 2000-2012

By Rick Hess — January 21, 2016 2 min read

On Tuesday, I examined the polling data on which issues concern voters this year and noted that education tends to come pretty far back in the back. Over the past six months, just 3% to 4% of voters said that education is the nation’s most important problem. Compared to other issues, education didn’t often rank in the top ten problems voters said they were most concerned about. So, education doesn’t appear to be a big deal for voters this year.

That’s not actually as surprising or unusual as some in education might suppose. In truth, the public rarely rates education highly when ranking the nation’s most important problems. You can see for yourself. Since 2000, both Gallup and the New York Times/CBS have asked voters, “What do you think is the most important problem facing this country today?” Figure 1 shows the share of voters naming education this year and in each of the past four presidential election cycles. (For 2000 through 2012, the result is for the last poll conducted before the election; for 2016, it’s from the December 2015 poll.)

As Figure 1 makes clear, about 2% of voters regard education as the nation’s biggest problem this year. That’s about the same as in 2004 and 2008, and down only modestly from the 4% who said the same in 2012. (These results are produced by averaging together the Gallup and the New York Times/CBS numbers.) The massive outlier in all of this is the Bush-Gore election of 2000, when 10% of voters named education. Since 2000, there has not been a year when even 5% of voters thought that education was the nation’s biggest problem.

Another way to look at these numbers is to ask where education ranked relative to other issues in each of these years. Figure 2 shows the results. In 2000, Gallup found education to be voters’ top concern and NYT/CBS found it to rank fourth. After that, education’s prominence fell precipitously. Between 2004 and 2012, education ranked higher than 9th in just one poll, while finishing 9th in three polls, and 15th in two others. This year, Gallup currently has education at 13th and NYT/CBS at 16th. In short, since 2000, education has not been high on the public’s radar. At various times, attention has instead been devoted to issues like the economy, the Iraq war, unemployment, and the housing crisis.

The fascinating question is what happened in 2000—and after. The simplest explanation is that, in those days before 9/11 or the bursting of tech bubble, a booming economy and tranquil world allowed voters to focus on things like education, ethical lapses, crime, and healthcare. When things changed, education got pushed further back in the queue. It’s also true, of course, that the No Child Left Behind Act got passed in 2001. It may be that passage of NCLB helped to cool the nation’s concern about education, though it seems a bit of a stretch to me.

Bottom line: Education is unlikely to emerge as a significant issue over the next nine months. But it’s also true that the lack of attention to education in the presidential election is pretty normal, and shouldn’t be read to signal any change in the attention education is likely to receive when the political world shifts from campaigning and back to governing.

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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