Campaigning on Education

We are just about at the end of our political conventions, so how has education fared?  At last week’s Democratic convention, we had little mention of K-12 education, with the majority of it coming during Barack Obama’s acceptance speech, and more still coming from former Virginia Gov. Mark Warner and current Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick.  

So far, the GOP convention has been about the same.  Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee spoke of education last evening.  VP nominee and Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin made specific mention of special education (and more importantly, made a play for the sped community, perhaps the best-organized grassroots community in the nation).  But on the whole, despite all of the money and attention heaped on the issue by Ed in ’08 and others, public education was barely an also ran in this lead-up to the general election.

Over the past two weeks, Eduwonk (www.eduwonk.com) had done a good job of bringing us education commentary from campaign advisors.  Last week, we heard from the Republicans (including former Massachusetts Gov. Jane Swift, who, in the name of full disclosure, Eduflack helped defeat in a congressional race in 1996).  Swift and company offered some terrific insights into the education whispers being directed into John McCain’s ear, providing us more information in a week than the campaign had provided over the past year.
And this week, we are getting similar insight from Obama advisors Mike Johnston and John Schnur, who have given us both a 10-point plan and a real call to action (at least a call to action for policy wonks).
Yesterday, Greg Toppo reported in USA Today on the Democratic Party platform and how its education planks differ from years past and are seen as crossing the teachers’ unions.  Why?  Because the Party is supporting the idea of merit pay, one of the few education issues put forward by Obama during the primary campaign.
It all has Eduflack thinking.  Why is the issue of accountability seen as a Republican idea?  Don’t Democrats believe in measuring student achievement and knowing how our schools and kids are performing?  Why is the issue of supporting teachers seen as a Democratic idea?  Don’t Republicans care about making sure our teachers are well-trained, well-supported, and well-respected?  
We can go down the list.  School choice.  Charters.  Special education.  STEM.  High school reforms.  Principal preparation.  Alternative certification.  All are now seen as political issues, embraced by one side or condemned by the other.  It is no wonder that true, meaningful education reform is so difficult to come by these days.
I don’t mean to be Pollyanna-ish about this.  I get the ideology behind many of the policy issues.  I understand that it wasn’t so long ago that the national Republican Party was calling for the abolition of the U.S. Department of Education.  I know the teachers unions have been myopic in their view of political candidates to support and limited as to their ability to embrace change.  But I also know we should demand more from our education community.
Earlier this year, I made recommendations on how Senators Obama and McCain can and should be talking about K-12 education during this campaign.  But I know that other than a possible question or two during the domestic policy debate, education will unlikely be a subject of presidential discussion.  But I would urge both campaigns to consider a few points, both as they message their campaign and as they prepare for their possible administration:
* Education is not an island unto itself.  A strong educational system leads to a strong economy.  It offers better jobs and better opportunities.  It improves the health and welfare of the community.  It is truly a tide that lifts all boats.  Education is the common denominator that links all of our domestic policy needs.
* We must teach to the 21st century.  These past two weeks, we’ve heard a lot about innovation and alternative energies.  If we are serious about this, we need to be serious about STEM education.  Reducing independence on foreign oil comes, in large part, from U.S. citizens with the skills and abilities to think, explore, and discover differently.  STEM is at the root of all of that, as well as countless other issues that will make us stronger as a nation.
* Education is about people.  We can develop the best curriculum or write an unmatched text, but if we don’t have a qualified, enthusiastic, and successful educators at the helm of the classroom and the school, we won’t see the results.  We need to invest in good teaching and good school leadership.  It starts in teacher training programs, and it continues through professional development for decades.
* Data is king.  We can’t improve if we don’t know where we stand today.  We identify best practices by seeing where our teachers and students are succeeding.  Likewise, we learn where we need to deploy resources and improve offerings based on the information.  School improvement requires high-quality, comparable data at the state, district, school, and student level.
* We need national standards.  We are not a union of independent states with different needs and different expectations.  There should be one national standard, a standard that brings us together and ensures that all students are receiving the high-quality education they deserve (and have been promised).  We can look to the governors to help us define what those standards should be, but a fourth grade education or a high school diploma should mean the same thing, regardless of state, social standing, or political party.
Education may not be THE defining issue of this campaign, but as we are discussing the middle class and small towns and the economy and the future, the one common thread is education.  Republican or Democrat, liberal or conservative, we all should agree that every child should have a high-quality education and every child should have the opportunity to succeed.  I know the campaign advisors agree with this, now we just have to get the nominees to say it out loud and in public.

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