Where’s Education?

It’s always been a bridesmaid…last night, it got jilted

If presidential debates are glorified beauty pageants, education reform is their “world peace”—it’s something that everyone likes to talk about, that everyone likes to hear about, and that no one seems to have any idea how to make happen. Education, as policy rather than platitude, has barely been discussed during this otherwise discussion-happy campaign season—and, when it has, it’s nearly always been couched in jargon favored by the Whitney Houston school of pedagogic theory.*

Last night’s CNN/YouTube Republican debate was no exception; in fact, it marked a low point for this election cycle’s dialogue about education. In the Democrats’ July YouTube debate, for example, four of the thirty-nine questions posed to candidates addressed education—a healthy percentage on the surface, except that, after the “What will you do about NCLB?” biggie, the other questions were fluff: “Who was your favorite teacher?” “Did your kids go to public schools?” “Did you teach them about sex?”

In the Republicans’ turn on YouTube, how many of the thirty-three questions posed to candidates addressed education? Zero.

Which is disappointing, but not terribly surprising. If education has slipped as a political priority across the board, it seems to have slipped especially in the estimation of the Republican candidates. While most advocate free-market approaches to education reform—school choice, vouchers, charter schools, etc.—none of the eight contenders has, so far, offered any detailed plans for K-12 education. (Romney advocates college tuition assistance for high-performing students—a plan based on a similar program he instituted in Massachusetts—but has thus far had little to say about creating high performance before college.) Compare that to 2000, when, according to Education Week, one year before the election, “the Republican front-runner had explained his education platform in three detailed policy speeches, describing how he would require states to assess student progress annually and hold schools responsible for making improvement.”

The Democrats have thus far been only slightly better—as in, more detailed—about their plans for education reform. (For a comprehensive listing, EdWeek offers an interactive breakdown of the proposals candidates have issued.) The candidates have focused, in particular, on expanding federally funded early-childhood programs like Head Start and instituting universal pre-K—and, later, on subsidizing college tuition. Obama unveiled a fairly comprehensive, $18 billion education reform plan last Tuesday, to much fanfare (and, as CJR’s Curtis Brainard points out, some controversy). But even these relatively detailed plans, like those of their Republican counterparts, leave the bulk of the federal education system—grades K-12—as the elephant in the room.

Last night would have been a perfect opportunity for Anderson Cooper, via YouTube, to address the issue and force candidates to talk about education. (Its absence wasn’t for lack of options: according to EdWeek blogger Michele McNeil, “hundreds” of the nearly 5,000 questions submitted to CNN via YouTube “dealt with education, from how the candidates would change No Child Left Behind and help students better afford college to where the candidates stand on evolution in the classroom and national standards.”) But, then, why waste valuable debate time talking about boring ed policy? Why should viewers be lulled by candidates’ plans for the education of their children when they can be riveted by, for example, Duncan Hunter’s account of his close, personal relationship with his 20-gauge L.C. Smith? (“It’s just like the gun that my dad used to carry when I would walk behind him as a nine-year-old kid and pick up the shells when he was hunting quail.”)

Despite CNN’s efforts to the contrary, education did come up in two semi-meaningful ways in the debate: Romney attacked Huckabee for supporting, as Arkansas’s governor, college tuition assistance for the children of illegal immigrants. Romney then answered a question about black-on-black crime (“Two hundred to 400 black men die yearly in one city alone. What are you going to do about that war?”) by calling education “the civil rights issue of our time” and citing the need for “better education in our schools” to stem violence. Giuliani fielded a similarly loaded question—“Why don’t blacks vote Republican?”—by noting that “good education is something that everyone in all these communities and all communities want.” Elephant-in-the-room, meet Scapegoat.

While candidates, to be sure, have a vested interest in keeping their policy discussions as vague as possible—platitudes are always more crowd-pleasing than policy details—the press, for its part, has a vested interest in pressing through that vagueness. Cooper last night did that on the gun questions (“Is there anyone here besides Senator McCain who does not own a gun? Mayor Giuliani, you don’t?”), but ignored education. Part of that choice might stem not just from declining press-and-candidate interest in the issue, but also from declining voter interest in it; in 2000, according to the Pew Research Center, Americans ranked education as either first or second among the nation’s priorities; in 2004, it fell to fifth. But still. Not a single question on education? Not even a token one?

In the last Democratic debate, Chris Dodd suggested that there ought to be “one single debate on education.” While the odds of that happening are small, it’s clear that we need to hear more—from the candidates by way of the press—about their plans for improving schools. In June, the Education Writers Association, with funding from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and foundation money, announced it would host a series of panel discussions and one-on-one interviews with candidates to get their specific views on education policy; the organization would then make recordings of these conversations available to the public via Web stream and links to transcripts.

“No one has taken up the offer yet,” the EWA acknowledges. “But we’ll wait.”


* “I believe the children are our future…teach them well, and let them lead the way.” And so forth.

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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.