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As education competes with a host of other issues for attention during the 2008 presidential-election season, two prominent foundations unveiled a plan today to spend up to $60 million on an ambitious campaign to ensure strong billing for education, and to help shape debate on the issue.
The nonpartisan effort, backed by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Broad Foundation, appears to be one of the most costly single-issue campaigns undertaken during a presidential race. The 18-month campaign is being announced today in South Carolina to coincide with tomorrow’s debate there among Democratic presidential candidates.
The philanthropies have tapped some political heavyweights from both major parties to help get the message across. Former Gov. Roy Romer of Colorado, a Democrat, is the campaign’s chairman, and its executive director is Marc S. Lampkin, a Republican lobbyist who was deputy campaign director for George W. Bush during the 2000 election.
“We will use the tactics and techniques of the modern campaign,” Mr. Lampkin said in an interview this week. “We’re literally going to be a constant presence in and around where the candidates are going to be.”
The core elements of the Strong American Schools campaign, with the slogan “Ed in ’08,” are to promote strong and consistent academic standards across the states, to create incentives to ensure all classrooms have high-quality teachers, and to provide more time and support for learning.
Some analysts say it won’t be easy to keep the candidates focused on education.
“The number-one issue is Iraq,” said Larry J. Sabato, who heads the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia. He suggested that several other issues also will be vying for limited attention beyond the war, including health care, global warming, and abortion.
“Personally, I do not believe the agenda is all that much moved by these issue campaigns,” Mr. Sabato said.
But others said that even if education isn’t a top-tier priority, the foundations’ initiative is likely to give the issue substantially greater prominence than it otherwise would have.
“With those kinds of dollars behind it, they can make a lot of noise, and they’re likely to get a significant amount of attention,” said Whit Ayres, a national Republican strategist.
‘Not the Same’ as Stand Up
The philanthropies’ effort comes a year after the Seattle-based Gates Foundation, which has awarded about $1.7 billion this decade toward its agenda for improving high schools, first unveiled a campaign called Stand Up.
At the time, organizers promised extensive activities across the nation for an aggressive public-awareness campaign, but since then little has occurred publicly. Shortly after Stand Up was launched, the Los Angeles-based Broad Foundation signed on as a co-funder. (“Campaign Seeks Buy-In for High School Reforms,” April 19, 2006.)
Stand Up has now been transformed into the new campaign, which is more specifically focused on influencing how candidates handle education in the 2008 campaign and creating a groundswell of public support and pressure.
“This is not the same as Stand Up,” Mr. Romer said this week in an interview. “They announced it and didn’t do anything with it. … We’re going to run a very unique campaign.”
“We’re going to run it in the primary states with troops on the ground, with extensive media [focus], and a very strong Web site,” he said. “We intend to engage a great number of Americans in this dialogue, this campaign.”
Mr. Romer brings a unusual set of experiences to the job, having served not only as a state governor for three terms, but also as the superintendent of the nation’s second-largest school system, the Los Angeles Unified School District, a job he left last year. He also was the general chairman of the Democratic National Committee from 1997 to 2000.
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 campaign is calling for “American education standards,” though organizers emphasize that they’re not talking about mandatory federal academic-content standards or a national curriculum. “There needs to be consistency across state lines,” Mr. Romer said.
On teacher quality, Mr. Romer said the campaign would promote several ideas tied to changing the way teachers are compensated, including through some forms of merit or market-conscious pay.
“We need to pay more for teachers with certain subject-matter skills, for teachers teaching in challenged schools,” he said. “We also need to measure the effectiveness of teachers, not by one simple test, … and compensate those for proven performance.”
And the campaign is calling for more time and support for learning, including extended school days and school years.
Education had a high profile in the 2000 presidential campaign, with both then-Gov. Bush and then-Vice President Al Gore spending considerable time on the topic. But in 2004, when President Bush was seeking re-election, education was overshadowed by other issues, especially the war in Iraq and concerns about terrorism.