By now, we’ve all come to accept that education issues just are not going to be major players in the presidential election. We didn’t see it in the political primaries. For the most part, we didn’t see it during the two national conventions. And it is incredibly unlikely we will see it over the next six weeks. As the nation struggles with economic issues, ongoing mortgage issues, and trillion-dollar financial market bailouts, education reform is just not a top-of-mind issue, particularly for those undecided voters that will determine the next President of the United States.
But sometimes — heck, most times — it is just too hard to not to hook a good red herring or not to throw a strong left hook at a political punching bag. That is even true in education. Don’t believe Eduflack? Then you clearly missed Meet the Press this morning.
This AM, Tom Brokaw hosted a presidential debate autopsy with the senior strategists for Senators Obama and McCain. The discussion, as expected, was focused on economic policy, what the candidates thought of the expected financial bailout bill that will be unveiled by Congress tonight, and who is better suited to help the nation move forward from our current financial problems. On Friday night, little time was spent discussing what programs would have to be cut if we were to pay for $700 billion in buyout and the added costs of new financial oversights, agencies, etc. The issue came back around this morning on Meet the Press.
David Axelrod, Obama’s chief strategist and the primary architect of his incredible campaign, zeroed in on one program and one program in particular — Reading First. While not citing it by name (and why not?, it would score him points in some sectors), Axelrod attacked the “boondoggle” of a reading program the Bush Administration has been funding, a program, he went on to say, “hasn’t helped a single kid.”
I understand the need for hyperbole and vitriol in a political campaign (in fact, I was once accused by a weekly rag of a newspaper for injecting the latter into a 1996 congressional campaign). And in full disclosure, I have financially supported the Obama campaign, and have done so since before the first primary/caucus vote was cast in Iowa more than nine months ago. But I must say, if that is the belief of the campaign, and if it reflects the plans for federal education moving forward, I am severely disappointed and quite a bit surprised.
Let’s set aside, for a moment, the fact that the $300 million or so currently being spent on Reading First will do little to fund the bailout or the billions of dollars in new programs and new initiatives being put forward. The simple lack of understanding for Reading First and the impact it has had on our schools, as demonstrated by the talking point, shows that politics, and not results, can rule the day.
Eduflack would urge Axelrod — along with Obama education advisors Jon Schnur and Mike Johnston — to take a real look at RF and its impact on real schools and real kids. Heck, let’s just take a look at the swing states that will determine the results on November 4. Let’s look at RF’s impact in Pennsylvania. In Ohio. In West Virginia. In Colorado. In Florida. Let’s even take a look at its impact in cities like Chicago and New York City, major hubs of Obama support. Let’s place a careful eye on those schools, districts, and states where we’ve done what’s works and we’ve implemented scientifically based reading with fidelity, and we can see that Reading First has helped millions of kids. And it could help millions more with better management, better oversight, better fidelity, and better support.
When presidential administrations change, we should look to build on the successes of the previous administration, fixing those programs and efforts that didn’t work, and ensuring our taxpayer dollars are wisely spent. Spending federal education funding on programs that work is good public stewardship. And scientifically based reading is such a program. if we set aside the political packaging of RF, the core goals, the core intent, and the core outcomes of the program remain solid and should remain a national priority.
If Obama is serious about making sure every child has the math and science education needed to compete, he must first start by making sure every student is literate and can read at an appropriate grade level. Scientifically based reading is the strongest, fastest, and only path to get us there. It may not be a good campaign issue, but it is a damned good policy issue.