Turning Point: Education

Can the press force education onto the campaign agenda?

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.

But consider how much time we in the media devoted, this primary season, to Clinton’s cleavage. And Edwards’s house. And Huckabee’s diet. And Obama’s taste in leafy greens. And McCain’s recipe for barbeque sauce. And Kucinich’s wackiness. And Romney’s hair. If even a quarter—even an eighth—of all the time and effort we spent on assorted inanity had been devoted to discussion of education, the public might actually know that a vote for Obama would likely mean an overhaul of the rigid testing standards mandated by No Child Left Behind. Or that McCain would keep NCLB largely intact if elected president. Sure, their overall stances are fairly predictable, given their parties—the Republican wants increased privatization of the school system; the Democrat wants expansion of that system—but there are nuances within the nominees’ party poses that are worth dissection and discussion. Obama, for example, has emphasized early childhood education—expanding Head Start and implementing universal pre-kindergarten—which marks a fairly radical divergence from our current focus on K-12 education. McCain says he would likely freeze education spending while his administration reviews the current efficacy of NCLB and other federal education programs. Which raises just a few questions.

As we move into the general election season, let’s aim to achieve what “Ed in ’08”’s $60 million has thus far failed to do. Let’s aim to get the candidates—and, by extension, ourselves—talking about education. And not just in the “I believe the children are our future” platitudes that politicians—and, sometimes, we in the press—often revert to in talking about education. Let’s take it for granted that our youth are our tomorrow/public education is a promise we make to our future/educating our children is an investment in ourselves. True. Got it. Agreed. Let’s focus, instead, on the hopelessly dull yet desperately urgent details of fixing what ails our education system: school choice, teacher recruitment, student loans and scholarships, the place for special and bilingual and early-childhood and religious education, the costs and benefits of teachers unions, the costs and benefits of standardized testing, balancing accountability with creativity, etc.

When McCain calls NCLB a “good beginning,” what, specifically, does he mean by that? How does he plan to balance the private school vouchers he advocates with the needs of the public schools left behind? Where do charter schools fit into the picture? When Obama says he wants to find new mechanisms for student assessment, what does he imagine those might be? When he argues for an expansion of Head Start programs, how does he propose to find teachers to teach those programs, administrators to lead them, physical space to house them? And how does he propose to pay for it all?

There are, to be sure, some guiding lights through all the gloom. The New York Times’s Bob Herbert—whose columns advocating for improving our education system, whatever they lack in MoDowdian wit, are both compelling and wise—has been a one-man army in the fight to keep (hey, to get) education in our national political dialogue. Education Week, a publication aimed at teachers and administrators, has been offering coverage of education as a campaign issue (such as it is) that is both comprehensive and, in general, blessedly jargon-free.

But education should be out there in the mainstream press, as hard news, for everyday readers to digest and consider. Education-related questions—specific, detailed, appreciating the mutuality of each disparate policy point—should be a staple at campaign-trail press avails, town halls, and debates. As policy, sure, education may be as un-sexy an issue as there is; as a problem to be solved, its complexity and entrenched nature make it one of the most challenging our next president will face. But solutions are worth fighting for—and, more to the point right now, worth analyzing and debating. After all, our children are our future.

Read parts one, two, three, four, five, and six of this series.

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