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Candidates Urged to Back STEM Initiatives

By Sean Cavanagh — August 27, 2007 6 min read
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The idea of promoting economic “competitiveness” through education proved to be a hit on Capitol Hill this summer, when lawmakers, in a rare show of bipartisanship, passed legislation that calls for billions of dollars in new spending on school mathematics and science programs.

Now, business leaders and others who backed that proposal are turning their attention to the 2008 presidential race and urging candidates in both parties to make prosperity through education a core piece of their platforms.

So far, most of the Democratic and Republican contenders are sounding competitiveness themes in relatively general terms, while avoiding some of the trickier issues associated with the topic: how much to spend on new and existing federal programs, and whether economic growth and innovation are tied to the academic demands established in the No Child Left Behind Act, among them.

Even so, some advocates from the business, technology, and education communities believe that concerns about foreign economic competition and what many see as subpar academic skills among American students are generating momentum to compel candidates to focus on the topic.

And the issue, they predict, will resonate with the public.

“It’s tied to economic prosperity— always one of the main themes of a campaign,” said James Kohlmoos, the president of Knowledge Alliance, a Washington advocacy organization that promotes research in education. Mr. Kohlmoos served as an education adviser to Al Gore when he was running for vice president in 1992, and has worked on other Democratic campaigns since then.

For “clever candidates who can make that connection in one- to two-second sound bites,” Mr. Kohlmoos added, “it could be a successful plank in their platforms.”

The business community strongly backed Congress’ recent passage of the America COMPETES Act, which President Bush signed into law Aug. 9. The law authorizes the creation of programs to recruit and train K-12 math and science teachers, as well as programs across the government in research and development. (See Education Week, Aug. 15, 2007.)

A group of corporate and university leaders called the Task Force on the Future of Innovation wrote to all the Democratic and Republican candidates this summer, urging them to emphasize science, technology, engineering, and math—known as STEM issues—in their campaigns, and offering to advise them on those subjects.

One such letter, sent July 3 to Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., was signed by Norman R. Augustine, the retired chairman and chief executive officer of the Lockheed Martin Corp.; Craig R. Barrett, the chairman of the Intel Corp.; Catherine T. Hunt, the president of the 160,000-member American Chemical Society; and Robert Dynes and David J. Skorton, the presidents of the University of California system and Cornell University, respectively.

Political Equations

“If we raise this as an issue that everyone is talking about, that’s the first step,” Ms. Hunt said. But if math and science concerns are “seen as a single-party issue,” she said, “then that’s not good for us.”

Several of the candidates have touted their support for the America COMPETES Act, which the Senate and the House approved this month by wide margins. Nearly all the congressional members vying to be president voted for it; the exceptions were Reps. Tom Tancredo of Colorado and Ron Paul of Texas, both Republicans, and Dennis J. Kucinich, D-Ohio.

In a May 31 speech to the Silicon Valley Leadership Group, an association made up of executives of high-tech companies, Sen. Clinton voiced support for the America COMPETES Act, and said she backed national academic standards in math and science. That idea was also proposed in legislation earlier this year by another Democratic contender, Sen. Christopher J. Dodd of Connecticut, who called for “voluntary” standards.

Sen. Clinton also spoke about her and her husband’s support for the creation of the Arkansas School for Mathematics, Science, and the Arts, a public boarding school for top students, located in Hot Springs, where former President Bill Clinton grew up.

The New York senator suggested that she would support the establishment of other boarding schools as a way of encouraging talented math and science students. Public math- and science- themed academies have grown in popularity in recent years. (“Math, Science Academies Favored to Challenge Top-Tier Students,” Dec. 6, 2006.)

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, a Republican contender, believes that charter schools with a math and science focus can play an important role in keeping students interested in those subjects and strengthening the nation’s workforce, according to James Bognet, the policy-development director for his campaign.

“As much as we want to compete today, it starts with K-12 and colleges,” Mr. Bognet said in an interview. “You can’t just snap your fingers and have it happen. It has to start early.”

Mr. Romney supports one-time bonuses to recruit more math and science teachers and higher salaries for teachers in those and other in-demand subjects, his campaign said. Democratic candidate Barack Obama, a senator from Illinois, has voiced support for differential pay for teachers in high-need subjects. Differential pay has traditionally been opposed by teachers’ unions.

Besides tapping into public worries about the economy, candidates who focus on competitiveness also stand to win the support of wealthy donors in the high-tech community, said Ward Hanson, a fellow at the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research, in Palo Alto, Calif. He hosted a forum at Stanford University in June on business innovation and the presidential race.

“Silicon Valley often refers to itself as a political ATM,” Mr. Hanson said. “This is an area that has a lot of resources.”

Sound Investments?

Even candidates who are taking credit for their work on the America COMPETES Act, which stands for Creating Opportunities to Meaningfully Promote Excellence in Technology, Education, and Science, could face pressure to trim the spending called for in that legislation. The law authorized about $43 billion over three years. As he signed the bill into law, President Bush said it would establish many “unnecessary and misguided” programs, and he called on lawmakers to hold down spending in the budget process.

One of the most prominent antitax voices in Washington, Grover G. Norquist, said Republican presidential candidates would be smart to campaign against the spending in the law.

Cutting taxes on businesses is a surer way to promote innovation and job growth than the measures supported in the new law, said Mr. Norquist, the president of Americans for Tax Reform.

“We’ve never spent our way into ‘competitiveness,’ ” said Mr. Norquist, who believes voters want candidates who pledge to hold the line on spending. “It’s not only the correct economic policy; it’s a winning political strategy,” he said.

But Mr. Augustine, the former head of defense contractor Lockheed Martin, said many business and technology executives see government spending on math and science education, as well as research, as necessary and overdue. If voters question presidential candidates about the spending authorized in the law, “their answer should be, ‘How important do you think it is that your children have a decent job?’ ” Mr. Augustine said.

One of the tougher questions for candidates in both parties is whether to connect competitiveness issues to the No Child Left Behind Act, which is up for reauthorization. The law seeks to hold schools accountable for their students’ academic performance.

Mr. Kohlmoos, whose organization supports the 5½-year-old law, said he hoped candidates would focus on its potential for “building capacity,” or cultivating talent by setting higher standards for the overall student population, and not simply complain about its highly debated testing provisions.

“It’s the effort to mobilize the education community to improve schools so that America can be competitive,” Mr. Kohlmoos said of the NCLB law. “The problem, in a campaign environment, is the oversimplication” of issues, he added. “It doesn’t do much for true policymaking.”

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Coverage of mathematics, science, and technology education is supported by a grant from the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, at www.kauffman.org.
A version of this article appeared in the August 29, 2007 edition of Education Week as Candidates Urged to Back STEM Initiatives

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