Federal Opinion

A Lost Issue in 2008?

By Arthur E. Levine — July 30, 2007 6 min read
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In their first seven debates, Democratic and Republican presidential candidates have presented America with a cornucopia of plans for solving a plethora of urgent issues—health care, national security, energy, the economy. But the candidates in both parties have had relatively little to say to most viewers about one of the most prominent issues of the past several elections: education.

Education is falling off the nation’s priority list. Indeed, during the 2000 presidential election, Americans ranked education either first or second among the nation’s priorities. In 2004, it fell to fifth.

And now, as the 2008 election season gathers steam, the presidential candidates are demonstrating just how precipitous the decline has been. In the first 12 hours of debates, they gave education less than 33 minutes of air time—19 of them in the June 28 Democratic debate at Howard University, aired by PBS and, most pundits agreed, little watched. Until that debate, only three of 17 candidates said anything of substance about how they would improve our schools. Even one of the candidates, Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico, observed that the late-June debate marked the first occasion on which education had been discussed. Three of the candidates still don’t include education in the platforms that appear on their Web sites. Many of the rest rank education low among their concerns—putting it seventh, eighth, or even 10th on their top-10 lists.

To be sure, the candidates mention education when they have to. At the Howard debate, the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision against voluntary school integration handed down earlier that same day forced the issue. At the National Education Association’s annual convention the following week, the seven candidates who spoke about the No Child Left Behind Act—one Republican and six Democrats—largely echoed the NEA platform, telling their audiences what they wanted to hear. And in the July 23 CNN-YouTube debate, they responded well enough, if for the most part vaguely, to the four of 39 questions that had to do with education: Who was your favorite teacher? What will you do with NCLB? Did your kids go to public schools? Did you teach them about sex? But for the most part, the candidates continue to treat education as a subject for niche audiences, not a major national concern.

While the silence on education issues among the candidates has been deafening, it is even more unfortunate that most elected leaders are not paying that much attention to the subject these days, as my college-age daughter and her classmates recently discovered. On a trip to Washington to learn about government, they were required as part of their assignment to visit congressional offices in small groups to lobby for an issue of their choosing. Rachel’s group chose education. She later called home, discouraged, to say that everyone is concerned with immigration, energy, and the war—but no one wants to hear about education.

To permit education to fall off the national agenda today is to accept weak and inequitable schools. Not only is this bad policy, but it is morally wrong.

In the next decade, our nation is likely to pay less and less attention to education. Baby boomers, who constitute more than half the electorate, single-handedly made education a priority because they wanted good schools for their children. Today most of their kids have graduated or are largely through school. The boomers are now focused on their parents, who are growing older and more frail, absorbing an increasing share of boomers’ time and resources. They are asking for relief in the form of elder care, health insurance, and Social Security. These issues will gain more and more priority as the boomers themselves begin reaching retirement age in 2008.

The sheer size of the post-World War II baby boom generation means that any issue its members agree upon as critical becomes a national priority. Every politician running for any office—from dogcatcher to president of the United States—quickly develops a platform in that area. For these reasons, senior benefits and health care will likely overshadow education in the 2008 election and the elections that follow.

Yet our country still faces huge education challenges: the persistence of academic-achievement gaps; a need for more and better-prepared teachers, as many as 2 million; and failure—after nearly 25 years of school improvement efforts—to turn any urban school system around. We have to fix these problems. If America is to compete globally and sustain a democratic society, all of our children need, more than ever before, higher-level skills and knowledge to support a family and participate as engaged citizens.

To permit education to fall off the national agenda today is to accept weak and inequitable schools. Not only is this bad policy, but it is morally wrong for children to be denied a quality education at birth because of their parents’ income or skin color.

The reality is that education is part of the answer to many of the issues that now dominate the presidential debates. Preparation of experts and general education of America’s population are key elements of national defense, the war on terrorism, and energy policy. It is at the heart of immigration, health care, and environmental protection.

It would be a mistake for the candidates for the nation’s highest office to treat education as an issue whose salience has come and gone. It would be an error to drop education from America’s list of priorities in favor of the fad du jour ranking higher on today’s public-opinion surveys. It makes no sense to discuss subjects such as evolution, global warming, or stem-cell research instead of schooling, because they are inextricably intertwined with education.

What can be done to ensure that candidates pay attention? The national education media and the independent sector have a crucial role to play in getting candidates to articulate—and helping to delineate—their positions. For example, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation have launched a bold and concerted campaign to make education improvement a priority in the 2008 presidential campaign.

Called “ED in ‘08,” the $60 million, nonpartisan awareness campaign focuses on three issues: higher academic standards, effective teachers in every classroom, and more time and support for all students to learn. It will employ techniques varying from the very personal, such as questioning candidates at campaign stops and organizing campaign activists, to mass-media strategies, including e-mail campaigns in primary states and commercial advertising. (“Funds to Push Education as Election Issue,” May 2, 2007.)

It makes no sense to discuss subjects such as evolution, global warming, or stem-cell research instead of schooling, because they are inextricably intertwined with education.

ED in ’08 may be the most important philanthropic investment in education in years, and perhaps for years to come. Its $60 million price tag is far less than the price society will pay if we fail to reconstruct our education system: billions of dollars to address crime, cover health and social services, maintain prisons, and make up for lost tax revenue.

Not only are the nation’s largest philanthropies taking notice of the silence on education, so too are journalists, businesspeople, and the nonprofit sector. In June, the Education Writers Association, a professional association for the nation’s education reporters, announced it would host, with the support of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the Carnegie Corporation of New York, the Lumina Foundation, and KnowledgeWorks, a series of panel discussions and interviews with candidates to explore their positions on education.

These efforts need to be successful. They need to be supported and accelerated by reporters, parents, educators, business leaders, and government associations—because the future of our nation depends upon it. The Broad and Gates foundations, along with the other organizations now pressing the point about education, are offering our nation the chance to do well and do good. The presidential candidates need to embrace it—not just when circumstances force them to, but as a crucial plank in their platforms.

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