At the end of a presidential campaign in which education received some attention but never emerged as a top-tier issue, analysts were trying to look beyond this week’s election to the K-12 issues awaiting the next president and gauge where they might fit as a new administration prepares to grapple with a global economic crisis.
“There can be a case to be made that education becomes the vehicle that helps fuel the economy,” said MaryEllen McGuire, the director of the education policy program of the New America Foundation, a Washington think tank. “Education is the building block, and we can’t lose sight of that now.”
And while education never registered high in surveys assessing the issues that would sway voters in the 2008 election, the American public wants the country’s schools to improve and would rally around a president who set out to help them do so, one pollster said.
“Education is an issue that people want everybody focused on,” said David Winston, the president of the Winston Group, a Washington polling firm that works for Republican candidates. “They see it as critical for the future of the country.”
But others suggest that education’s low standing as an issue in the latest election cycle foreshadows four years in which the next president won’t make it a high priority.
“It probably continues to be a back-burner issue as we deal with the bigger, more pressing things,” said Gary M. Huggins, the director of the Commission on No Child Left Behind, a bipartisan group of policymakers and educators formed by the Aspen Institute that has recommended changes to the nearly 7-year-old No Child Left Behind Act.
The Missing Issue
Whether education will rise to prominence in the next administration remains to be seen. But it’s clear that it never became a top concern of this year’s voters.
In a poll of 1,101 registered voters by The Washington Post, just 1 percent said “education” when asked: “What is the single most important issue in your choice for president?”
Fifty-three percent answered “economy/jobs”—not surprisingly, given the turmoil in U.S. and foreign financial markets and ominous signs of an economic downturn. No other issue was cited by even 10 percent of respondents to the telephone survey, which was conducted Oct. 8-11 and had a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.
If nothing else, though, the new president and the 111th Congress will work to decide the future of the NCLB law. The law, which is generally seen as one of President Bush’s biggest domestic accomplishments, was scheduled to be reauthorized in 2007, but the current Congress never got very far on a bill to amend and renew the law. (“Final NCLB Rules Require Uniform Graduation Rates,” this issue.)
“It’s the one thing that the next president will definitely have to respond to,” said Joseph P. Viteritti, a professor of public policy at Hunter College in New York City.
The law requires states to set goals for student proficiency in reading and mathematics and hold schools accountable for meeting them by the end of the 2013-14 school year.
Neither Sen. John McCain, the Republican nominee, nor Sen. Barack Obama, the Democratic nominee, gave a detailed outline of how he would change many of the law’s most criticized requirements. For example, both candidates said they wanted to shift the law’s emphasis from identifying low-performing schools to rewarding high-performing ones. But neither said specifically how he would propose to make that happen.
One reason both candidates were vague on the future of the law is that factions within their political parties disagree on some of the law’s important elements, said Mr. Viteritti, who made his comments at a panel discussion on Oct. 21 at Teachers College, Columbia University, in New York City.
The next president and Congress will need to make significant decisions about the future of the law, Mr. Viteritti and several others said. One of them is how to increase the rigor of states’ academic standards, or even establish a process for setting national standards.
Although education hasn’t been at the front of voters’ minds in 2008, the public considers setting standards an important ingredient in efforts to improve the quality of schools, said Mr. Winston, the pollster.
“They want standards,” he said. “If the states are not going to step up to the plate, maybe there will be support for national standards.”
Congress may take the lead on efforts to decide the future of standards and other important issues facing the NCLB law, said Lorraine McDonnell, a professor of political science at the University of California, Santa Barbara, who studies the politics of education.
“The new president will have so many other things on his plate that it will essentially be a congressionally led effort,” she predicted.
Economy Tops Agenda
The next president will almost certainly give most of his early attention to jump-starting the economy and managing the recent $700 billion federal assistance plan for the financial sector.
Spending on the rescue package is likely to restrict the amount of money available for federal K-12 programs, Ms. McDonnell said.
“The big question is whether, in the short run, education ... can expect any additional appropriations,” she said. “I would guess not.”
That could force difficult choices for states and local communities, which furnish the vast majority of funding for education, said David Shreve, the federal-affairs counsel for education at the Denver-based National Conference of State Legislatures.
States will be looking to the federal government, which provides roughly 8 percent of total K-12 school spending, as a stable funding stream.
“I can’t imagine where they’re going to come up with the money,” Mr. Shreve said of the federal government. “I think their hands may be tied.”
That may even be the case for programs, such as special education, that both major-party tickets identified for increases in funding.
In the last days of the campaign, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, the Republican vice presidential nominee, proposed “fully funding” the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. Sen. Obama pledged to do so as well.
Under the 2004 renewal of the idea, the federal government is authorized to cover up to 40 percent of the states’ excess special education costs, based on the national average per-pupil expenditure. That 40 percent is what is considered “full funding.”
But annual federal appropriations have fallen far short of that goal. In fiscal 2008, which ended Sept. 30, the federal government covered 17 percent of such costs.
While the incoming president and the new Congress may support the principle of full funding for the law, even strong advocates for the idea don’t expect them to have the money to keep those promises.
“I just don’t think the money is going to be available,” said Nancy Reder, the deputy executive director of governmental relations of the National Association of State Directors of Special Education, based in Alexandria, Va.
“All the money is being pumped into the war in Iraq and the economic crisis,” she said.
But Ms. McGuire of the New America Foundation said that the new president could make the argument that education is the vital ingredient of economic competitiveness.
“If we had leadership making the case,” she said, “I think people will be more receptive for that.”
In the second presidential debate, on Oct. 7, Sen. Obama hinted he would tie education to economic concerns if he were elected president. In answering moderator Tom Brokaw’s question about choosing among health care, entitlement reform, and development of new energy sources as the top issue to pursue, the Democrat mentioned health care and energy, and added that he would address education, too.
“We’ve got to deal with education so that our young people are competitive in a global economy,” Sen. Obama said.
Mr. Winston said polling suggests that Americans would be receptive to such a message, even if they weren’t casting their votes based on Sen. McCain’s and Sen. Obama’s education platforms.
“There’s not a decreasing concern about education in our country,” the pollster said.
“There’s going to be a focused discussion in the post-Bush environment,” he added, “about what’s next” for the No Child Left Behind law and the overall federal role in education.
A version of this article appeared in the November 05, 2008 edition of Education Week as K-12 Issues Will Await President