The Next Education President?

Does a personal endorsement of a presidential candidate matter?  Last week, Eduflack suggested that college presidents should play a more active role in endorsing political candidates, lending their support to those who can best help grow the institution, support the students, and improve the quality and access to postsecondary education.

This week, U.S. Senator Ted Kennedy (MA) threw his support to Barack Obama, symbolically passing the torch from JFK to the junior senator from Illinois.  Much has been written on the issue, particularly on whether Obama or Bill Clinton is more Kennedy-esque.  It raises another question though.  Is Senator Kennedy also endorsing his preference for the next “education president?”

After all, Kennedy has worked with both Obama and Hillary Clinton on his Senate Education Committee these past three years.  He’s seen them both in action.  They’ve both introduced legislation that has been heard before his committee.  He’s campaigned for both of them in their respective Senate races.  He must know more about their education policy stances than the average bear, no?

Yes, Clinton has already gained the endorsement of the American Federation of Teachers.  They are strong in New York City, strong in New York State.  Obama, meanwhile, spent part of his summer talking about merit pay for teachers, and issue the unions have resisted.  So an AFT endorsement for Clinton, particularly last year when all assumed the race would be over by now in a Clinton blowout, was to be expected.

During the past month, Obama has picked up the endorsement of both Kennedy and House Education Committee Chairman George Miller (CA).  That’s a powerful statement to the education community.  Kennedy and Miller are likely the leaders who will shepherd NCLB’s successor in 2009 (assuming we don’t heed the President’s call and reauthorize this election year).  As chairmen of their respective committees, they speak for education policy in the U.S. Congress, and have for some time.  And they have both stood up to say Obama is their guy.  That means something, particularly with the policy community and the education blob here in our nation’s capital.

What about the Republicans?  By CongressDaily’s latest count, House Education Chairman Buck McKeon (CA) has lent his support to Mitt Romney.  Based on McKeon’s commitment to education reform issues, that endorsement says a great deal about the possibilities of the former Massachusetts governor.  On the Senate side, Education Chairman Mike Enzi is still in the uncommitted category.  Maybe he is waiting on Romney or John McCain to talk about the importance of rural education for his Wyoming constituents.

What does it all mean?  Will we see an Obama education platform in the fall that shows Kennedy and Miller’s full fingerprints?  That certainly wouldn’t be a bad thing for teachers and kids across the country.  What about a Romney education platform that shows the imprimatur of the school improvement-minded McKeon?  It sure beats past GOP platforms calling for the dismantling of the U.S. Department of Education.

Either way, while the candidates may not be talking in public much about education issues, these endorsements signal the candidates are listening to the right people and are saying some of the right things behind closed doors.  And that is why such personal endorsements are important.  None of us know what an Obama or a Romney Education Department would look like.  But if they are working in partnership with Kennedy or McKeon, we have some understanding of — and some hope for — what the future of federal education policy may hold.  

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