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Education and NCLB in the Presidential Election

By Mark Walsh — March 04, 2008 3 min read
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This is from guest blogger and EdWeek assistant managing editor Mark Walsh, who took a break from his own blog on education law to provide this Campaign K-12 dispatch:

Education won’t be any more prominent of an issue in the in the general election campaign for the White House this fall than it has been in the party primary season.

That was the view of two of the three panelists at a symposium on Monday at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington.

“This is the first time since 1980 or ’84 that education has not loomed large, or at least largish, as a presidential campaign issue,” said Chester E. “Checker” Finn Jr., the president of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation and a former U.S. Department of Education official under President Reagan. “If any of today’s candidates thought education was a winning issue, or even an important issue, I think we’d know it by now.”

William A. Galston, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a White House domestic-policy adviser under President Clinton, said, “Not only has education not been a big issue in this presidential year, it’s not going to be a big issue in this presidential year.”

The two overriding issues relate to peace and prosperity, aka the Iraq war and the economy, and when both of those are “on the table simultaneously, that is the election,” Galston said.

Finn, the author of the new memoir Troublemaker: A Personal History of School Reform Since Sputnik , offered several theories on why education has taken a back seat in this election. The most obvious is that issues such as the war, the economy, health care, and global warming have hogged the spotlight. Or, people may have grown exasperated with talk of education reform in the presidential elections.

But the theory he seemed to favor was that people have figured out “that education is no longer a winning issue because when all is said and done, a president doesn’t have that much leverage over the schools.”

The dissenter on the panel was Marc S. Lampkin, the executive director of Strong American Schools, which is running the ED in ‘08 campaign to push education as an election issue.

Lampkin said the ED in ’08 effort has been successful in establishing “some degree of discourse” with the presidential candidates’ advisers. And while polling of the electorate has shown that education was, at best, in the middle of the pack as the top concern of voters, the group’s own polling shows that “education is the No. 1 issue for Hispanics,” Lampkin said.

Education Week reported on the challenges faced by the ED in ’08 effort in this story in December.

While the AEI event was billed partly as a look at how education has played historically in presidential campaigns, there was very little of that. Instead, the panelists were eager to discuss what effect the election could have on the future of the No Child Left Behind Act, regardless of how much attention the issue receives on the stump.

Galston, who was involved in the 1994 reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (of which NCLB is the 2001 version), said there has been a “collapse of the congressional center” around the federal school accountability law.

“If there is a Democratic president, I don’t think that NCLB will survive in anything like its current form,” Galston said. He added that he believes that the next Congress, assuming Democratic control and a Democrat in the White House, would pass a renewal of the ESEA, but it would be “more likely to look like the 1994 version than the 2001 version.”

Sen. John McCain of Arizona, who is the likely Republican nominee, is on record in support of NCLB and could be expected to try to maintain it, the panelists said. Almost needless to say, they did not seem to think that Congress would hammer out an agreement on reauthorizing the law before this election year is out.