Just about anyone you talk to believes that education should be a more important campaign issue than it is. Republicans and Democrats agree that the country’s economic future depends on the next generation of children being fully prepared for college and for sophisticated, challenging careers. Few dispute that the global rankings of 15-year-olds in the United States (below average in math, average in reading) fall well short of what the nation will need to compete internationally.
But, beyond platitudes, you didn’t hear much during the Republican National Convention about education reform from Mitt Romney’s campaign, and you won’t hear much this week from President Obama’s camp in Charlotte either. Romney has more or less decided to ignore the issue, in part because Republicans are split on whether the federal government should push for radical school reforms, following the path of President George W. Bush, or get out of public education entirely, following the path of a tea party favorite, Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky.
Obama has it slightly easier. He has support from the teachers unions and a strong record of defending federal education funding and encouraging state innovation in schools. His campaign rhetoric about education has been devoted almost entirely to its link to the economy, focusing on higher education and the need to keep college tuition rates under control. The “hit you in the wallet” argument about college plays well with voters. But even that talking point lost some of its punch in July when Congress, at Obama’s request, agreed to extend the 3.4 percent interest rate for need-based student loans.
Voters care about education. They’re just unsure about how their vote for president connects to their schools. About seven of 10 voters have consistently said over the years that education is “very important” in their election decisions, according to polling data from the Pew Research Center. Yet most Americans are attached to and pleased with their own local schools, even if they recognize the national crisis in education, said Obama campaign adviser Jon Schnur. Poor and minority communities are less likely than middle-class communities to be happy with their schools, noted Harvard University education professor Paul Peterson. Unfortunately, they also are less likely to vote.
In the campaigns, the rule of thumb is this: As long as the candidates acknowledge the importance of education, as both Obama and Romney have done, they aren’t going to win or lose votes at the ballot box on the issue. If they start digging into the details, things could get ugly.
Both have flirted with the education-reform movement, which includes controversial advocates such as former District of Columbia Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee and former Florida Republican Gov. Jeb Bush. But if either Obama or Romney pushes that reform envelope too far, the campaigns could find themselves in the middle of a divisive fight over teachers unions or school vouchers.
Education advocates are frustrated by the lack of attention in the presidential contest, even though they know that it isn’t safe politics to discuss failing schools and low achievement scores. “We’re not doing right by our kids. A lot of times, you’ll see people just completely avoid talking about it,” said Jason Williams, executive director of Stand for Children Massachusetts.
Policymakers seeking meaningful changes to education must regularly swallow hard and move past their prejudices and natural constituencies. Williams was once a teachers-union representative, and he later found himself battling the unions on a Massachusetts initiative to give priority to teacher effectiveness over seniority. “It requires a certain level of political courage to be willing to challenge the attitudes and opinions of people that you have historically held hands with on other issues,” he said.
It also requires a certain level of trust that officials from opposing parties can work together to solve a complex problem, a near-impossible task at the national level, and a daunting challenge in some states and cities, as well. Until then, well, there’s always the next election.