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Effort for Education as Campaign Issue Fights for Traction

By Erik W. Robelen & Alyson Klein — December 03, 2007 9 min read
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In a recent television commercial here, Sen. Barack Obama connects his personal story to his education agenda, calling for spending on early-childhood education and attracting a “whole new generation of teachers” to public schools.

“We should give every child the same chances that I had,” Mr. Obama, an Illinois Democrat seeking his party’s nomination for president, says in the ad.

TV spots like this one that home in on education policy have been rare so far in the contests for the 2008 Democratic and Republican presidential nominations, in which the candidates generally haven’t spent much time on the topic.

An unusual effort by two major philanthropies has been working to reverse the situation. The campaign, dubbed ED in ‘08 and announced last spring, was billed as an attempt to make K-12 education a top issue in the presidential election, and to help shape that debate.

So far, though, most analysts have seen little evidence that the campaign—financed by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Broad Foundation—is succeeding in giving education issues a high profile. Some suggest the effort was quixotic from the start.

As for influencing the tenor of the campaigns, such reach is hard to gauge, but at least some in the crowded Democratic and GOP fields have put forward plans or ideas that have echoes of ED in ’08’s three pillars: getting effective teachers into all classrooms, setting strong and uniform standards across states, and providing students with extended learning time.

“It’s fair to say that they have made very little progress in getting the voters to care about education,” Michael J. Petrilli, a vice president of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, a Washington think tank, and a former education official in the current Bush administration, said of ED in ’08 and its benefactors. “There has been some progress in getting the candidates to speak out on some of the issues they’re interested in, but none of them has graced their issues in a big, bold way.”

Marc S. Lampkin, the executive director of Strong American Schools, which is running the ED in ’08 campaign, argues that the effort is making important inroads. But, in an interview last week, he seemed to downplay the goal of making education a central theme of the 2008 presidential race.

“Making this a top issue was not the end in itself,” Mr. Lampkin said. “Ultimately, it’s not about where you stand in the polls. It’s about whether the candidates, and the next president, are adopting the right policies.”

A New York Times/CBS News poll in November found that education was the most important issue in voting for president to a relatively small percentage of likely voters in New Hampshire and Iowa, falling well below issues like the war in Iraq, the economy and jobs, and health care.

‘A Duty and Not a Passion’

Education has earned prominent attention in some past campaigns for the White House, such as then-Gov. George W. Bush’s 2000 race. But with the war in Iraq, illegal immigration, and troubling economic news sucking up a lot of political oxygen, it has not been easy to get the 2008 contenders to spend much time on the subject.

In unveiling the ED in ’08 campaign in April, the Gates and Broad foundations promised to spend as much as $60 million by Election Day 2008 to give education greater prominence, and to get candidates to focus on three core issues.

ED in ’08 calls for setting “American education standards,” though organizers say they’re not talking about mandatory federal academic-content standards or a national curriculum. The campaign seeks to ensure “effective teachers in every classroom,” promoting ideas tied to changing the system of teacher compensation, including through some forms of merit or market-conscious pay. And it calls for more time and support for learning, including extended school days and school years.

The campaign has engaged in a variety of activities, with an early emphasis on Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina, the three states with some of the earliest caucuses or primaries. It has co-sponsored education events and run several TV and radio advertisements. It has also set up field offices in Iowa, where caucuses will be held Jan. 3, and New Hampshire, where the primaries are Jan. 8, and formed “leadership teams” in all three states that include politicians and education leaders.

The ED in ’08 campaign has used advertising and other activities to promote education as an issue in the 2008 presidential election. Two prominent foundations have committed some $15 million to the effort so far.
—Photo Courtesy of Strong American Schools

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The organization has sent volunteers to candidates’ campaign events. It’s even organizing an “Education Night” with the Manchester Monarchs, a minor-league hockey team in New Hampshire.

The campaign has worked to drum up more coverage of education issues in the election by national and local news organizations, and to make that coverage deeper.

And it’s worked directly with the presidential campaigns in both major parties to become a prime resource. It has distributed an 87-page education “toolkit” to all the candidates and has regularly reached out to encourage them to take up the organization’s core issues.

“We are doing a surround-sound campaign,” said Mr. Lampkin, a Republican lobbyist who was deputy campaign director for President Bush in 2000. Mr. Lampkin is heading up Strong American Schools jointly with former Colorado Gov. Roy Romer, a Democrat, who went on to serve as schools superintendent in Los Angeles from 2001 to 2006.

Just last week, the ED in ’08 campaign co-sponsored a Manchester event where national pundits discussed how education was playing out in the campaign. At the event, which attracted some 30 people, several commentators agreed that the issue has largely remained on the back burner.

Talking about education “is a duty and not a passion for most of these candidates,” said Dan Balz, a veteran national political correspondent for The Washington Post. Mr. Lampkin, who participated in the forum at the New Hampshire Institute of Politics at Saint Anselm College here, said that a number of candidates have introduced “substantial, substantive” proposals on education this year, but that few in the national media have paid attention.

“Things are being said, but no one is talking about them,” Mr. Lampkin said.

‘People Need to Stand Up’

The ED in ’08 campaign has done limited TV and radio advertising, including an Iowa ad featuring a high school student who urges viewers to “stand up and say to the presidential candidates: We want to hear about education.”

Officials of the project say they’re completing several more ads, and they plan far more advertising pegged to the general election, focusing on likely battleground states such as Florida, Missouri, and Ohio.

“We will be up on radio and TV in a more sustained way,” said Mr. Lampkin, “to impact a larger group of Americans in bigger states.”

As of early last week, the two philanthropies supporting the effort had committed a total of roughly $15 million so far to the campaign, said Marie Groark, a spokeswoman for the Gates Foundation, though she cautioned that the figure was continually in flux.

Some observers say the ED in ’08 effort’s influence appears to be limited by its legal status. As a nonprofit organization incorporated under Section 501(c)(3) of the federal tax code, Strong American Schools is not permitted to endorse or oppose candidates, and cannot take positions on any particular legislation.

The organization does not publicly praise or criticize the plans or statements of particular candidates. Some observers say that not having a carrot or stick limits its influence with the campaigns, a point ED in ’08 organizers concede is a drawback.

Mr. Lampkin argued that the project is showing real progress in getting the candidates to focus on the core issues it’s promoting.

“A number of the major candidates of both parties have embraced our pillars of education reform, either in whole or in part,” he said.

A look at proposals and remarks by the presidential contenders shows some overlap with the ED in ’08 platform, though it is hard to discern whether the candidates were directly influenced by the effort.

Several White House hopefuls, both Republicans and Democrats, have shown support for creating new pay incentives for teachers, for instance, though that is by no means a new idea in the political sphere. Sen. Obama has called for increasing pay generally for teachers, but also for creating new supports and financial rewards for successful teachers and instructional teams. Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, a Republican, has also backed the idea of performance-based pay.

Extended learning time is also on the agendas for several candidates. Campaign documents of former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, a Democrat, cite ED in ’08 materials in calling for a longer school day and school year.

At the same time, when the candidates do talk about education, they promote plenty of other issues besides those being promoted by ED in ’08. Expanding prekindergarten and making college affordable are popular with some Democrats, including Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York, as is criticizing the federal No Child Left Behind Act, a stance sure to find favor with teachers’ unions and other educators.

Joe Williams, the executive director of Democrats for Education Reform, a New York City-based advocacy group that contributes money to Democratic candidates, said he believes the ED in ’08 campaign is influencing the candidates’ agendas to some extent.

“It helps in keeping some issues afloat,” he said.

Mr. Williams said events such as a series of education forums with individual candidates in Iowa that ED in ’08 has co-sponsored hold promise. Last week, Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr., D-Del., was the fourth candidate to participate in one. Others have included Mr. Huckabee and Mr. Edwards.

“If you get a candidate to engage for an hour about education,” Mr. Williams said, “they can’t just deliver cheap applause lines.”

ED Goes to School

Jan A. Reinicke, the executive director of the Iowa State Education Association, an affiliate of the National Education Association, said she has welcomed the efforts by ED in ’08 to make education a key issue, but she hasn’t seen much evidence of the group’s impact.

“They haven’t been very visible” in Iowa, Ms. Reinicke said. “I don’t think there’s anything going on that wouldn’t have otherwise been going on.”

In New Hampshire, the campaign seems to have drawn some notice, and the ED in ’08 brand has become familiar, some observers say. The organization recently co-sponsored an event with MTV at Manchester Central High School. John Rist, the principal, said he has seen representatives from ED in ’08 at campaign events, passing out fliers and talking to voters, but he still doesn’t think there’s been enough discussion of education in the race.

ED in ’08, he said, has had “a small impact in New Hampshire, a minor impact.”

Some teachers at Manchester Central High said they’ve recently become aware of the campaign.

“I’ve seen their stickers around,” said Gordon Behm, a science teacher. “But [at first] I thought it was short for Edwards ’08.”

A version of this article appeared in the December 05, 2007 edition of Education Week as Effort for Education As Campaign Issue Fights for Traction

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