Vote for Ed

Every election year, we seeing polling numbers that show education is usually one of the top three “issues” for the average American.  Yet when it comes time to pull the ole lever in the voting booth, few Americans seem to cast their votes on education policy stances.  Such a disconnect demonstrates the chasm between public awareness of an issue and public action on the same issue.

Along comes Ed.  Or rather the Ed in ’08 ( campaign launched last week (and this week) by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Broad Foundation.  As part of their Strong American Schools initiative, Ed in ’08 seeks to make education reform the primary domestic policy issue in the 2008 presidential elections.

Many critics have been quick to discount the effort, believing that such issue campaigns have been unsuccessful in the past.  But none have been envisioned at the size and scale that Ed in ’08 is intending.  Others continue to believe 2008 will remain a one-issue race (begins with “I” and ends with “Q”), and everything else will get lost in the fringes.  But I have greater faith than that.

Without question, Strong American Schools has some potential obstacles to face.  The largest is voter apathy.  The key to success for Ed in ’08 is driving new audiences into the political process, getting them to take a stand, demand attention on their issues, and casting their votes based on the attention those issues receive.  That means engaging individuals who have either disengaged from the process or who have never wanted to play in the first place. 

The second is the NIMBY factor.  Reform is all about getting people to stand up and say the current system is failing ME, and I deserve better.  But if you talk to the average parent, or even the average teacher, about eduction reform, you usually get the same response.  “The nation and/or the state is in real trouble and needs fixing.  But my own school is doing just fine.”  We don’t want to believe we are teaching in or sending our children to a school that just isn’t up to par.

What does all this mean for Governor Romer and the folks at Strong American Schools?  The mountain before them is not an easy one.  They need to overcome cynicism, apathy, and the defenders of the status quo.  But it is possible to reach that apex.  By employing successful public engagement activities, by taking the message to the disengaged, and by establishing a new paradigm for using a singular policy issue to define a complex political process, they can achieve the bold goals they have set out to reach.  We aren’t talking about a plank in a party platform here.  We are talking about a shift in public thinking and public action.  “We want to strengthen our schools, AND we vote!”

How do we do it?  

1. Demand More — Too often, such issue advocacy efforts are about the “no.”  Don’t change Medicare.  Don’t recalibrate Social Security.  Don’t vote for Candidate X because he did Y or Z.  Strong American Schools needs to be about the “yes.”  What do we need to do to make our schools better?  How do we improve NCLB?  How do we better prepare and empower our teachers?  That means real answers to some difficult questions.  For instance, each of the presidential candidates should be asked to complete a survey of hard-hitting questions about K-16 education.  And we’re not looking for simple answers to questions like “Do you support teachers unions?” or “Do you support student loans?”  By requiring real answers that demand more than a 22-year-old research assistant culling responses from old campaign literature or voting records, the public can get substantive answers to “how” we strengthen our schools.  And that information can be used to to engage and empower a new generation of activists and advocates.  We aren’t looking for soundbites; we need substantive thinking that demonstrates and understanding for what is happening in my state, in my city, and in my school.

2. Change the Dynamic — Armed with the hard information on what the 18 (gulp) presidential candidates would do to strengthen our schools, we need to use new communications tools to engage those new audiences.  2004 taught us a great deal about new media.  Traditional television ads and leafleting remain an important component of any information campaign.  But they no longer can get the job done by themselves.  The changes advocated by Ed in ’08 require bringing new audiences into the fold — individuals and groups that have not been involved in the presidential process in the past.  That means effectively utilizing new media (web sites, blogs, chat rooms, meetups, etc.) and employing time-tested social networking efforts.  The goal is to raise the sense of urgency with stakeholders.  That means constant access to information and unwaivering calls to action.

3. Turn to New Audiences — As I’ve said earlier, success comes when we tap the concerns and the uneasiness of those previously avoiding the process.  For those who are regular voters, it is safe to say 45% vote Democrat, 45% vote Republican, and the fight is for that final 10%, regardless of who the specific candidates are.  That’s what pollsters and party activists depend on.  You change the game when you introduce new voters into the process.  MTV tried that in 1992, seeking to spur Generation X into the voting process. Ed in ’08 has a similar opportunity.  Let’s look at Generation X and Generation Y.  They are the closest to the issue.  Their views of high school, for instance, are still fresh of mind.  They know the shortcomings of our schools.  They feel, day in and day out, the impact an irrelevant courseload is now having on their ability to win a good job.  And they are still optimistic enough that want to fix the problem for their little brothers and sisters and their communities.  Let’s get those audiences involved.  When we add voices to the debate, we completely shift the playing field.  And that shift requires a new look at issues and a new respect of those issues from candidates.

Education reform should be our central domestic policy issue.  There is no single issue more important, and no single issue that touches more people in more ways.  Education is a health issue.  It is a jobs issue.  It is an economic development issue.  It is a crime issue.  And it is an environmental issue.  Education touches and influences them all.

What candidate or interest group is going to stand up to oppose strengthening our schools or improving the quality of education in our communities?  Some will surely try.  There are too many who fight to protect the status quo.  And there are some that want to take a huge step backward, undoing the progress we have made in school improvement over the past five years.  But by focusing on the end goal, and building a comprehensive, integrated communications effort that both informs and changes public action, Ed in ’08 can succeed.

Strong American Schools has raised the flag.  Now is the time to salute and acknowledge that we can settle for nothing less that complete victory.  The future of our nation depends on it.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s