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Education Far From Its Glory Days as Top Issue in Presidential Races, Report Says

By Andrew Ujifusa — September 22, 2016 2 min read
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Education was a relatively high-profile issue in the 2000 presidential election, but since then it’s dropped a lot in the rankings of the nation’s most pressing issues—and that’s true this year as well.

That’s one notable finding from a new report, “Education and the 2016 Election: What the Public Thinks,” by Frederick M. Hess and Kelsey Hamilton of the American Enterprise Institute. The two authors examined multiple years of polling data from Gallup, CBS, and joint efforts from CBS and the New York Times.

A monthly Gallup poll in 2016, for example, found that just 2 percent to 5 percent of those surveyed see education as the most important issue facing the next president. That doesn’t put education dead last, the two authors note, since Gallup listed 30 issues facing the next president. But it does mean that education has ranked no higher than sixth (in June) among the public-policy issues mentioned, and as low as 16th (in July). In most months this year, it ranked between eighth and 12th.

The 2000 presidential contest between Democrat Al Gore and Republican George W. Bush featured education as a marquee issue. In fact, for 2000, Gallup had education ranked as the most pressing issue for the public. And an October debate between Bush and Gore featured an extended exchange about vouchers and teacher pay, something it’s hard to imagine taking place today. But just four years later, education slumped to 15th, and since then it’s climbed no higher than ninth.

And as the chart below shows, a much larger share of the public believed education to be the top issue 16 years ago than in any subsequent presidential election year.

Why was 2000 a high watermark for education? Hess and Hamilton offer this explanation: “In a time of peace and prosperity, education was a promising way to appeal to soccer moms and NASCAR dads. In today’s polarized politics, such appeals may be less likely and less effective. If so, education is unlikely to stage a comeback any time soon.”

The two AEI authors also note that for many, education is largely a local and state issue and not a national one. In recent polling we’ve written about, a relatively high share of those surveyed give their local schools high grades, but they’re less sanguine about the overall state of the nation’s schools.

Click here to learn what Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton and Republican nominee Donald Trump have said about various K-12 issues.

Read the full AEI report below:

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