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EDUCATION IN ’08?: Education Not an Issue During Primaries, but Signs Point to Higher Profile in McCain-Obama Matchup

“We can’t build ourselves an education system for the future using strategies we’ve had in the past,” she said.

During the races for the Democratic and Republican presidential nominations, the issue of education played a very small role. In fact, Roy Romer, chairman of ED in ’08 and former governor of Colorado, has pointed out that there were 160 questions asked of candidates in the presidential debates before one dealt with education, and that question was “Who was your favorite teacher?” Indeed, even when education was discussed on the campaign trail, candidates were more likely to have mentioned the “importance of a good education” or the “need for a competitive workforce,” than they were to get into substantive discussions about education policy.

Top Priorities in Election 2008 chart

Percentage of registered voters rating each as “very important” to their vote

However, if recent polling is any indication, the issue of education could enjoy more attention in the coming weeks. According to a May 29 poll by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, education ranks second in a list of voters’ priorities for the 2008 election. As shown in the chart to the right, education, at 78 percent, tied with health care and jobs as the number two priority in voters’ minds, trailing only the economy, but ranking ahead of issues such as Iraq, taxes, and immigration.

Already, the candidates (or at least their representatives) have started talking about education. At a June 6 event held by the Association of Educational Publishers (AEP) billed as the AEP Great Education Forum, senior education advisors representing Senators John McCain (R-AZ) and Barack Obama (D-IL)fielded questions from a panel of education experts. Interestingly, when asked why education had not been an issue in the campaign, both of the education advisors said that their candidates are talking about education, but that no one is listening.

Jeanne Century, director of science education at the University of Chicago, who represented Senator Obama, said that Obama always talks about education and believes that education is the key to fixing many of America’s problems. Senator McCain’s representative, Lisa Graham Keegan, former Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction, said that the campaign thus far has just been the media talking to the media, and Americans have not been given the chance to weigh in. She added that McCain will be much more detailed in his education plan in the coming weeks and will be putting forth new proposals. (Obama has announced that he will devote the week of June 16 to laying out his proposals for making the “workforce more competitive by reforming our education system.”).

When asked to provide a closing statement that would describe their candidate’s position on education, each sounded familiar refrains from the campaign trail. Century echoed Obama’s theme of change and hope: “We can’t build ourselves an education system for the future using strategies we’ve had in the past,” she said. “We know a great deal about what works and we need to have the courage and the will to take responsibility for every single child in this country to realize the dream of American public education.”

Keegan, meanwhile, focused on McCain’s independence and willingness to take tough positions: “Senator McCain has proven himself in his career to be somebody who does not care if you are angry with him,” she said. “He does not care if you don’t agree with him, especially in places where you’d expect him to. …. He is going to be somebody who will absolutely confront the barriers in education that keep us from saying one thing but being unwilling to actually act on it.”
(Complete Video from the Forum is available at

As a June 11 Education Week article points out, the education issue could emerge more clearly in the general election campaign, especially as the candidates begin to discuss their positions on the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). According to the article, both candidates express support for NCLB goals and its use of testing to measure schools’ success. However, whereas McCain would “promote market forces as a way to spur school improvement, and would likely seek to freeze education spending as part of a review of the effectiveness of federal programs,” Obama “promises to search for new ways of assessing students and to invest significantly in efforts to improve teacher quality.”

And, if the differences in McCain and Obama’s positions on education do not emerge over the course of the summer, it is safe to assume that both candidates will ratchet up their discussions on education reform as the media begins to focus on the topic in late August and early September when students go back to school.

The Pew Poll
Candidates Are at Odds Over K–12

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