Voting for Our Future: What Candidates Must Say About Education in 2012


So the "general election has begun" proclaims The Hill, and the exhortations from the punditry are for candidates to either, shore up their base or move to the center.

One interesting bit of advice, coming from more than one source, is for the candidates to "talk about education." Recent research results from the College Board strongly suggest that advice may not be a bad idea. But if Democratic candidates want to take that advice to heart, they need to develop more effective education talking points than what's currently being conveyed.

Education Is "Top Tier" In 2012 Election

According to the College Board survey, "education is a top issue for voters in this year’s elections." Interesting data nuggets available in the pdf (link above) include:

  • 67 percent of the responders say education will be extremely important to them personally in this year’s elections for president and Congress.
  • Education ranks behind jobs and the economy (82 percent extremely important) and is on par with government spending (69 percent), health care (67 percent), and the federal budget deficit (64 percent).
  • Three out of four voters say having a post-secondary degree or credential is important to achieving success in the workplace.
  • Those most likely to be “education voters” in the 2012 elections are African Americans (91 percent), Hispanics (81 percent), Democrats (79 percent), and women (75 percent), especially 18- to 49-year-old women (77 percent).
  • A large majority of voters believes that increased funding for education is necessary, including four in nine who say it is definitely necessary. A 55 percent majority would be willing to pay $200 more per year in taxes to provide increased funding for education.

Most importantly, the survey was conducted in the following "swing states" that many observers have identified to be crucial battlegrounds in the election: Colorado, Florida, Nevada, New Mexico, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Wisconsin.

So if education is a hot topic among the electorate, how is it being addressed in national elections? Barely at all, it seems.

As Huffington Post's Joy Resmovits notes, the political debate among Republican primary candidates mostly ignored education. And in a campaign speech President Obama recently gave in Vermont, he devoted all of two minutes to education in a 35-minute speech -- about a minute each to K-12 and higher ed. (View it here with the education part beginning at 16:00.)

Education issues factor more strongly in state governors races (most education spending takes place at the state level). But according to a recent article in the education trade newspaper Education Week, the role education plays in the dozen gubernatorial races taking place across the country defies "easy political categories."

From Washington state, where the candidates' proposals are "very similar," to Indiana, where outgoing governor Mitch Daniels appears to be leaving an interrupted legacy, to North Carolina, where education is likely to be viewed through the lens of a .75¢ tax increase -- the political discussion about education is a pretty watery stew.

So, education is an issue that is very much up for grabs in the 2012 elections. And according to the College Board survey, although Democrats are slightly better positioned than Republicans, the reality is that "neither party enjoys the broad support of swing state voters."

It's hard to blame political candidates alone for their inability to strike a resonate chord on education. Especially since the information available in the general media is so terrible.

Media Cluelessness On Education

Regardless of which side of the political spectrum you happen to be on, the consensus view is that press coverage on education is mostly lousy.

In a recent issue of American Journalism Review, Paul Farhi of the Washington Post took to task prominent news outlets such as NBC and CNN for compiling "an encyclopedia of loaded rhetoric, vapid reporting, and unchallenged assumptions."

After watching numerous broadcasts and combing through the NEXIS database, he accused mainstream journalists of conveying a "shorthand" view of education -- that there's an education "crisis," that schools are "failing," teachers are "ineffective," and "reform" is the only answer. His conclusion is that American citizens are being ill-served by reporters who spread a false message about the nation's education attainment, over-simplify problems of low student achievement, and pass along popular "nostrums" like school choice and charter schools without any questioning or analysis.

Conservative pundits don't grade the state of education journalism much better. Writing from his perch at the Fordham Institute, Michael Petrille mostly agreed with Farhi's criticism. In his own analysis, Petrilli tags the mainstream journalists with peddling "false impressions" and "traveling in a pack."

So given the poor coverage education gets in the media, what's a candidate to do?

A Populist Appeal For Education

As veteran political operative Mike Lux explained recently, "there is overwhelming data to suggest that broad majorities of voters, including swing voters" are likely to respond to a populist message in 2012.

His advice is that "Democrats, especially Democratic incumbents, who are trying to win elections in times like these when the middle class is being squeezed so hard, need to be willing to take the populist torch and carry it proudly."

President Obama certainly seems to be taking this advice.

Take that campaign speech Obama delivered in Vermont. The speech is loaded with emotional rhetoric about "equal pay for women," stopping "taxpayer giveaways to banks," "fair" taxes, "jobs," and the "American promise." When he got to the education part, he stayed true to the populist appeal with exhortations to "give schools the resources they need to hire good teachers, reward great teachers," and stop Republican attempts to increase interest rates on student loans. But then there's this series of confusing statements:

I don't want folks in Washington to be bashing teachers . . . I don't want them to defend the status quo . . . I want us to grant schools the flexibility to teach with creativity and passion, and stop teaching to the test, and replace teachers who aren't helping kids learn.

Don't "bash" teachers, but we've got teachers "who aren't helping kids learn" and are "teaching to the test?" And what's this "status quo" that people need to stop defending? Aren't the teacher-bashing, budget-cutting Republicans against the status quo? I'm confused.

So given the confused treatment of education coming from the top, it's plain to see that Democrats have a long way to go in crafting a populist political message related to the issue.

Like the arguments that Democrats are planning to make about the economy -- that we have gross inequalities, a system rigged for the rich, and too few rewards coming back to the middle class and working poor -- a populist message for education should be a lot about money -- who has got it, who hasn't, and why it isn't being spread around in a fair way.

Just like there's too much economic unfairness in America today, there's also too much education unfairness -- starting at the very beginning of our children's lives.

Insist On Investing In Early Childhood Education

Just this week, the National Institute for Early Education Research looked at The State of Preschool and concluded it to be in "crisis."

A handy overview at Huffington Post recounts the carnage: 

  • State funding for pre-K programs decreased by about $60 million in 2010-2011, following a $30 million cut the year before.
  • In the last decade, pre-K spending fell by more than $700 per child.
  • While the demand for state funded pre-K grows, as populations of eligible children continue to increase, most states aren't spending enough to meet quality benchmarks.
  • Although the economy is certainly a factor, most of the under-investment is due to "eroding quality and the gradual substitution of inexpensive child care for early education."

The case for investing in early childhood education is not hard to make. (I've made it again and again.) In a nutshell: Investing in quality early childhood education gives a higher return on investment than just about any other government program -- in terms of lowering juvenile delinquency and adult incarceration rates while raising grade school achievement, high school completion, college acceptance, and future economic prosperity.

The HuffPo piece concludes: "The report comes as Head Start is on the chopping block in Congress, and as states that supplement the federal government's funding are contributing less. According to the institute, 16,812 children attended Head Start programs that had state contributions last year -- a decline of 40 percent over the decade."

So when you hear Republicans calling for further cuts to Head Start and bigger tax breaks for the wealthy, just remind them that every tax break given to a millionaire -- averaging $143,000 -- could have paid for 18 more kids to get into Head Start.

Campaign For Student Choice

In a year when a lot is sure to be said about the need for "parental choice" in public education, Democrats should be talking about "Student Choice," namely the choices we provide to school children and youth in the public school system.

We all know that no two children are exactly alike, so schools need the means to differentiate learning experiences to the varied individual needs of students. Students of all ages need to be provided with a rich curriculum that allows them to grow their intellectual capacities in many ways. And schools need to have the wherewithal to provide special services to students, especially those with learning disabilities or who can't speak English that individualize education to their needs.

Funding education at "basics only" levels just isn't going to hack it.

For instance, including art and music in school offerings can, according to a recent study, help at-risk teenagers or young adults "show achievement levels closer to, and in some cases exceeding, the levels shown by the general population."

But providing a well-rounded curriculum to students is becoming increasingly difficult to do as school budgets continue to get slashed. A recent report from the US Department of Education revealed that "fewer public elementary schools are offering visual arts, dance and drama classes than a decade ago. The percentage of elementary schools with a visual arts class declined from 87 to 83 percent. In drama, the drop was larger: From 20 percent to 4 percent in the 2009-10 school year. Music at the elementary and secondary school levels remained steady, though there were declines at the nation's poorest schools."

Science programs are also increasingly being undermined by school budget cuts.

So what cutting education spending does is cut the choices available to students attending school. This robs them of learning opportunities and harms them on the long run.

Attack The Culprits Behind Rising College Costs

Once students graduate from high school and want to continue their education, they shouldn't have to incur colossal amounts of debt. President Obama is correct to point out that banks and lending firms were unfairly profiting from the student loan market. And Republicans have sided with the financiers.

But another culprit in the rising cost of higher education is conservative lawmakers themselves who have chosen to cut education supply in the face of rising demand.

In an insightful post picked up by Alternet, Laura Clawson explains that it's not public universities behind the increase in tuition rates. Tuition rates increase because "tuition plugs the gap when state appropriations fall short of covering the costs of educating students." She elaborates:

Since the 1980s, at the same time as a college degree was becoming more essential to making your way into the middle class, the cost of college was falling more on students, with tuition steadily increasing as a share of revenue for public colleges and universities.

Between 2006 and 2011, 43 states decreased per-student funding, and in 17 the drop was greater than 20 percent. During that five-year period, even with increasing tuitions, total per-student revenue dropped in 26 states. So the biggest part of the public higher education tuition story is that more people are going to college and state funding is not keeping pace.

Sure there's "waste" in the higher education system. Name a system without that. But if Republicans want to assign blame for the rising costs, they need only look in the mirror.

A Three-Part Message Democrats Can Count On

More than any other issue, education is perhaps the most local in nature. From state to state, even city to city, the flashpoints can differ a lot. But just as Republicans have made a mantra out of "choice, standards, and accountability," Democrats need a unified populist front they can spread from race to race.

In an election year in which there's evidence that education may be a defining and prominent issue, here's a three-part populist message Democratic candidates can likely rely on:

As the richest country in the world, America can afford the best system of education in the world. But we're becoming a country where the wealthy get to have the education they want for their kids and the rest of us get table scraps for ours. All of our youngest citizens deserve nothing but the best. That means:

  1. Fully fund early childhood education so all children have the foundation they need to build successful lives.
  2. Expand Student Choice and provide opportunities in schools for students to learn from a well-rounded curriculum and from teachers who are trained, equipped, and supported to meet students' individual needs.
  3. Make college affordable for all by funding it to the level of demand, not the interests of greedy loan companies and budget-cutting ideologues.

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