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The (non-)politics of education

Margot Carmichael Lester & Steve Peha

As we head back to school this fall, we’re also heading into one of the most important presidential elections in history.
The candidates are already running ads and the issues seem clear: the war in Iraq, the economy, healthcare, the price of gas, etc. But not education. As important as everyone seems to think education is, it barely rates a blip on a pollster’s radar. Why?

Think about the life-changing value of a good education. Where would most of us be without the educational opportunities we’ve had? Obviously, many of this year’s crop of issues are more urgent — but that doesn’t explain why education is never a top priority in a national election (or, for that matter, in state gubernatorial elections either).

For starters, neither candidate has a well-defined position on education. And even if they did, it’s unlikely those positions would differ much. The biggest educational issue is No Child Left Behind, and it has been enthusiastically supported by both Democrats and Republicans. Neither McCain nor Obama is likely to call for dismantling it entirely; and even if they did, that still might not get the people’s attention.

This is either because we can’t see that NCLB has made any significant difference in how well we educate our children or that no one has proposed a different solution. Even after seven years, the jury is still out on whether the most ambitious education reform in American history has accomplished much in the way of reform.

If we look at how our politicians treat education, and how the voters feel about it, we might conclude that people don’t think educational change is possible. Public school is free, everybody goes — and no matter what legislation passes or doesn’t pass, school remains pretty much the same. Our inability to change education leads to passivity among the general public about whether it can be changed at all. And things that can’t be changed don’t make good issues at election time.

But education can be changed. If the right policies were in place, we could begin to make progress. If candidates talked about a single national testing system that used challenging tests like the NAEP or SAT, we could make some change. If candidates talked about overhauling teacher training on a national level, we could make some change. If candidates endorsed universal pre-school and all-day kindergarten, we could make some change.

But no one is talking about these issues now and we suspect they won’t come up in any significant way in the near future.

When it comes to education, we are focused on the wrong things. Or, rather, we’re only focused on one thing – NCLB – that probably won’t make a difference no matter which way it goes during reauthorization next year. If we want to be as serious about education as we are about healthcare and the price of gas, we need to concentrate on big issues that cut cleanly across the electorate. Senator, are you in favor of universal pre-school? Yes or no? And if so, how would you propose to pay for it? It’s got to be that simple or education will never get off the ground as an election-year issue.

If we’re going to make real progress in education, we have to get real with our political leaders about the kind of progress we want. Right now, we’re giving them a free pass. That’s no way to run an election. If holding our kids accountable for test scores is such a good idea, why can’t we hold our political leaders accountable for policies that really make a difference?

Steve Peha and Margot Carmichael Lester own Teaching That Makes Sense Inc., an education reform, advocacy and consulting company based in Carrboro.

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