Why Isn't Education a Bigger Political Issue in 2012?

The candidates agree education is essential to American prosperity. So why aren't they talking more about it?
by | October 18, 2012

“If we want America to lead in the 21st century, nothing is more important than giving everyone the best education possible.”

- President Barack Obama, in August on the need for further investment in education

“To restore America’s promise, and get Americans working again, we must achieve meaningful reform in our education system.”

- Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, on his plan for education

No disagreement there. Education as economic imperative is a position that the presidential candidates share—yet few would argue that it’s been a focus of the current campaign. It tends to be more useful as a token reference (“I think we’ve got to invest in education,” Obama said in the first debate; “Education is key,” Romney agreed) rather than a basis for serious and detailed argument. You won’t see the president asking for the specifics of the governor’s education plan, and Romney rarely bothers to criticize Obama’s education policies aside from saying the White House has overreached.

But if “nothing is more important," as the president himself said, why isn’t the debate over education the most important issue of the campaign? I spoke with Cynthia Brown, vice president for education policy at the liberal Center for American Progress and former assistant education secretary under President Jimmy Carter, and Michael Petrilli, executive vice president of the conservative Thomas B. Fordham Institute and former associate assistant deputy education secretary under President George W. Bush, to get some perspective from both ends of the spectrum. Together, we formulated a few theories.

It’s the economy, stupid

Duh. According to Gallup, 72 percent of Americans say economic problems generally are the most important issues in this election, and unemployment/jobs specifically is the highest scoring issue at 32 percent. Education sits at 5 percent. Yet, as the statements above from both candidates illustrate, there is widespread agreement that education could solve the jobs problem. So why the discord?

The problem is twofold, Brown and Petrilli say. First, the philosophical argument that education leads to more and better jobs makes sense to most people, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they will name education as the most important factor in their vote.

“They know they're linked, but they haven't translated it directly into education and all the steps that would be needed to improve education,” Brown says. “There is a big gap between understanding there's a problem and knowing how to fix it.”

Second, while people agree that education is economically important, it’s not going to create jobs in the next year or two. It could take decades for education reforms, however effective and meaningful, to have the kind of impact that transforms the economy.

“Let's be honest: people are worried about jobs now. Investing in education is a long-term solution to these problems," Petrilli says. “There have just been other pressing issues that have pushed education down on the priority list.”

The state and local factor

For good reason, most people think of education as a state and local issue. Polling is a bit scarce, but a 2008 Gallup poll found 46 percent of Americans think a local school board should have the greatest influence on what is taught in public schools; 30 percent said the state government, and 20 percent said the federal government. It makes sense: 90 percent of public education funding comes from state and local resources. Education-related voter initiatives are mainstays on state and local ballots.

Combine that perception with the reality that the federal government simply has a limited role in setting education policy in the country, and you have little incentive for candidates to make it a pillar of their campaign. Thus, while Obama does occasionally cite his Race To The Top grant program and Romney totes the success of Massachusetts schools, their actual plans for national education reform are decidedly more opaque.

“From the national level, there's not a lot you can do in terms of specifically improving education. The most important role for the president is using the bully pulpit and putting money on the table to spur innovation,” says Brown. “When you have such a localized system for public education, it limits what the federal government can do.”

Yet, education hasn’t become the central issue in many state or local elections either, at least not this year. While many governors “want to claim the mantle of being an education reformer,” as Petrilli puts it, there seems to be a trickle-down effect that’s led to the economy dominating the smaller campaigns in 2012 as well. Governing’s Lou Jacobson, who has handicapped every kind of state-level race, says he couldn’t name a specific contest where education has been the major issue.

"My sense is that the economy is the big issue in every race, whether it's for president or dog catcher,” Petrilli says.

A lack of big ideas

Now, despite the conventional wisdom that education is a state and local issue, the last decade has featured two of the largest federal education reform efforts ever undertaken: Bush’s No Child Left Behind law and Obama’s Race To The Top program. But the former is in desperate need of improvement, both sides agree, and has been a mixed bag at best—and the latter was a drop in the bucket compared to the $700 billion stimulus that it was a part of and has even less name recognition with the general public than No Child Left Behind.

Therefore, Petrilli speculates, there might be “a bit of exhaustion on both sides” when it comes to making sweeping proposals for education policy at the federal level. Nobody is particularly interested in arguing for a larger federal role in public education—but, on the other side, nobody wants to appear too callous by advocating for a dramatically reduced role either. That leaves both candidates and their parties stuck in neutral.

“This is not a clash of big ideas in the campaign right now,” Petrilli says.

With just a few weeks to go, that isn’t likely to change. But looking down the road, it could. Petrilli notes that, during the 2000 race, education was arguably one of the biggest issues (and, not coincidentally, the economy was the most important topic for only 22 percent of voters). A better economy could return the focus back to topics like education, which the public clearly cares about but inevitably takes a secondary role during an economic crisis.

Then again,  what if the economy doesn’t get much better? To use the candidates’ own words, is there a risk in letting the most important solution for economic prosperity serve as a mere undercard during the current campaign?

"It's going to depend on how much the economy really improves. Are we going to just take off?” Brown says. “Not if these economists who say we have a structural problem are right. And when they say structural problem, they mean the quality of education, too.”


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