For years now, we have heard how “education” is a top-five political issue for most Americans, usually falling behind the economy, jobs, and healthcare in terms of importance. Despite its standing, though, most election results have shown that K-12 education issues simply are not deciding factors when one steps into the voter booth, particularly when we are casting votes for offices like U.S. Representative and U.S. Senator (and, of course, President).
As much as we may want education to be a voting issue on the national level, it simply is not (and the good folks at Ed in ’08 can back us up here). Education is perceived by many to be a local issue, a topic best controlled by local school boards, city councils, and mayors. We may need some state legislatures and governors to weigh in, particularly with the checkbook, but education simply is not seen as a national issue. Even during the height of No Child Left Behind, we simply didn’t see national elections decided, or even influenced, by education issues.
Will 2010 be any different? Yesterday the Alliance for Excellent Education released data from a recent survey conducted by Lake Research Partners and Bellwether Research insinuating that the upcoming congressional elections could be different. In reporting on public sentiment on high schools and ESEA reauthorization, Democratic pollster Celinda Lake and her team found:
* Those surveyed believe “the nation’s public high school are in urgent need of improvement”
* The quality of high schools through ESEA reauthorization is a voting issue for more than 80 percent of voters, with half saying failure to act this year will impact their vote in the 2010 congressional elections
* One in four surveyed gave our high schools an excellent (A) or good (B ) grade, with 20 percent giving them a D or F
* We think our local high schools are doing better than the national average
* Nearly 70 percent of those surveyed say a high school diploma isn’t enough to get a good job
* Two-thirds say high school drop outs have a significant impact on the nation’s economy
* A majority say Congress isn’t paying enough attention to high schools
These are interesting findings, and virtually all speak to the need for ESEA reauthorization and ESEA reauthorization now. And it helps justify the recent buzz that NCLB will be renamed the College and Career Readiness Act when ESEA finally does come up for a congressional vote.
But Eduflack has to take issue with one of the findings. According the public summary released by the Alliance yesterday, Lake says:
Eight in ten voters want to see No Child Left Behind (NCLB ) altered in the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), while just 11 percent say NCLB should be left as is. Reauthorizing ESEA this year in a way that improves public high schools is personally important to three-quarters of voters. Overall, voters give mixed reviews to NCLB.
I’ll completely give you the last point. For those that know about NCLB, it will always get mixed, at best, reviews. But the rest of the point has me scratching my head. Lake and company surveyed 1,000 likely voters through a telephone survey last month. The data was weighted to reflect actual population (age, education, race, political affiliation, and marital status).
Based on this finding, we are to believe that virtually all likely voters recognize that ESEA is up for reauthorization this year (or know that it was supposed to have been reauthorized years ago). And we are to believe that 80 percent of likely voters understand the components of the current NCLB well enough to know that the current law needs to be altered to better emphasize the role of high schools in the education continuum.
Do we honestly think that virtually every likely voter in the upcoming elections is aware of NCLB, ESEA reauthorization, and the priorities that are being debated? Last year, Brookings released a study showing that only 1.4 percent of national news coverage in the first three quarters of 2009 focused on education issues. And I’m willing to bet that NCLB/ESEA was but a fraction of that 1.4 percent. So where are we getting our information?
I’m not saying that the findings are wrong. I just worry that those surveyed are telling us what we want to hear. We all want to say that education is an important issue. We all want to say that we need to do a better job with our schools, particularly our high schools when we hear about drop out rates. But aren’t we assuming an education policy knowledge among likely voters that is far, far out of whack with reality?
Yes, we all should believe that federal policy should be changed to help improve our high schools. But we also need to know that real improvement only comes when state and local policy, and buy in from practitioners, is part of the equation. Policy itself does improve education. It merely serves as a blueprint.
Perhaps I am wrong, and this November there will be an outpouring of votes cast because of ESEA and Congress’ inability to reauthorize the law. But I doubt it. I’d love to be wrong, but we have never enjoyed a year when congressional elections were decided on education issues. And with the economy and healthcare still swirling, do we honestly think this is the year education moves from fifth to first place?