This is part seven of a series on the start of the 2008 presidential election’s general campaign. Links to the rest of the series can be found at the bottom of the article.


Late last June, when 2008’s epic presidential primary season was just starting to pick up momentum, a TV ad aired in Iowa. It featured a 2007 high-school graduate, Abby Bowman, decrying the quality of the United States’ education system. “When I hear that other kids in other countries are so much more advanced than we are in education,” Bowman said in the spot, “it’s kind of embarrassing.”

The ad was paid for and produced by “Ed in ’08,” a publicity campaign implemented last June by Strong American Schools, a nonpartisan education advocacy organization. The campaign’s sole purpose: get the presidential candidates talking about education. And make education A Big Issue in the 2008 presidential campaign.

When the initiative was announced last summer, many in the education sector—policy wonks and pundits alike—were excited about its potential to get education into the nationwide dialogue that a presidential campaign compels. (Legally, SAS cannot lobby on behalf of a particular party or platform or agenda; all it can do is raise the profile of education issues in general.) A June 24, 2007, Boston Globe editorial praised the campaign:

Education needs the promotional help. It has to compete against Iraq, terrorism, and global warming as a campaign issue. Candidates and voters seem less occupied with education, even though, as the [Ed in ’08] campaign points out, 1.1 million students a year drop out of high school. The country should be worried, because the economy increasingly relies on how much Americans know.

Adding to the hope and the high expectations for “Ed in ’08” was the fact that the initiative was kept afloat by deep pockets: The Eli Broad Foundation and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation teamed up to finance the campaign, its television ads, radio spots, and other publicity efforts. Together, Broad and Gates had donated $60 million to the “Ed in ’08” effort. “We’re trying to create a Sputnik moment,” Eli Broad said at the time, “to get people to see that,” in the nation’s education system, “our very economic future is at stake.”

Well. It is perhaps little surprise to anyone who’s been following the 2008 primary campaigns that, despite the noble intentions—and the extravagant sums—devoted to it, “Ed in ’08” has thus far achieved little success in fulfilling its mission. The Sputnik moment has yet to transpire. To call education even a marginal issue in the rhetoric of the campaign trail at this point would be severe overstatement.

We’ve written about this before. Though voters consistently place education among the highest of their political concerns, in poll after poll after poll—and though politicians themselves have made a point of talking about it in debates and in stump speeches—education has been virtually invisible in the aggregate of campaign coverage. Based on the amount we’re hearing about it as a campaign issue—and thus as a problem for the next president to tackle—you’d think things were fine with the state of our education system: that our country’s kids aren’t dropping out of school at an average rate of 7,000 per day. That our high-school students don’t rank well below students in other industrialized countries when it comes to math and science. That our schools overall aren’t ranked near the bottom when compared to twenty-one other developed nations.

Things, of course, are not fine. The world’s strongest economy has a relatively weak education system. And the fact that that is now a truism is, frankly, shameful.

Which is not to say that education should be, necessarily, a dominant issue in the 2008 election. Campaign coverage is a zero-sum game, especially in the mainstream political press—and part of the reason we aren’t focused on education right now, after all, is that we are focused on other issues: Iraq and Afghanistan, the economy, health care. As we should be. These are vital and urgent and in dire need of discussion and solution.

Megan Garber is an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University. She was formerly a CJR staff writer.