Way back at the beginning of this summer, an eternity it seems in this exhausting presidential campaign, The College Board launched its Don’t Forget Ed campaign to "get the candidates to prioritize education this election."
The campaign kicked off, according to an article in USA Today, with two installations. The first stunt was to line up rows of 857 empty school desks on the National Mall to represent the number of students who "drop out of school each hour of every school day." The second was to pile a six-foot-high stack of fake $100 bills on Wall Street to represent the $1.5 billion that would be put into the economy each year if the high school dropout rate was reduced by 1%.
Months before The College Board's campaign started, however, The Beltway Class had already determined The Very Serious Issues for this election. And education wasn't to be one of them.
Now that the three presidential debates have run their course, it's obvious that education has indeed been relegated to a side issue at best. But it's not the candidates' fault.
Candidates Squeeze Education In When They Can
Thanks to the relentless reporting of Alyson Klein and Michelle McNeil on the their Politics K-12 blog at the education trade newspaper Education Week, we know that the candidates had quite a bit to say about education -- although they were almost never directly asked about it.
In the first debate, education was inserted into the discussion, unprompted by the moderator, in the context of jobs and the deficit.
As McNeil reported, Obama brought education to the fore "when moderator Jim Lehrer asked him how, exactly, he plans to create more jobs." And Obama brought up education again "when the candidates squared off on how they would cut the deficit," referring to his efforts to consolidate education programs that the Republicans in Congress decided to cut anyway.
"Romney, too," McNeil noted, "stressed the education and jobs connection," and "that he would not cut federal education funding if elected."
In the second debate, a town-hall style event, a question came from a college student "who asked what the candidates were going to do to make sure a good-paying job awaited him upon graduation." This, by the way, was the only question, during all three debates, that even remotely asked the candidates to address the subject of education directly. And both candidates, again, linked education to "jobs" and "economic success."
The topic of education came up two more times during the debate, when the candidates were asked about immigration and assault weapons. Each time, the candidates pivoted from those difficult, perhaps more confrontational, issues to education policy. Regarding immigration, Romney brought up the DREAM act, which lets undocumented immigrants qualify for permanent residency if they have acquired a college degree or completed at least 2 years.
When the topic of gun violence came up, Romney said "good schools could perhaps bring down violence," and Obama used it as an opportunity to "allude to the common core standards (although not by name), and his school turnaround program."
In the final debate, which was supposed to be devoted exclusively to foreign affairs, the candidates became embroiled in arguments "over class size, teachers, and education funding." Again, as in the two previous debates, the candidates' brought up education un-promoted by the moderator, when questions about American economic competitiveness and future stature in the world came up.
There are only two ways to look at this.
Either you could be really cynical and conclude that the candidates pivot to education when they are confronted with difficult questions they don't want to address and grab on to that issue because they assume it's safer ground to strut their stuff.
Or you could conclude that the candidates bring up education because it has enormous systemic impact on nearly every topic the media aim to address -- and because of that influence, people think education is really, really important.
But either way you look at it, you have to conclude, based on the debates, education isn't a bigger factor in the election because people in the media, other than focused concerns like Education Week, just don't care.
What The Media Could Learn If They Cared
If major newsprint pundits and TV talking heads cared as much about education as they do about Big Bird and "binders full of women," they might learn two very interesting things that actually do draw meaningful distinctions between the two candidates.
First, again from the reporters at Education Week, in a less reported series of debates featuring education advisers to the rival campaigns, the discussion revealed that "the campaigns disagree most over how involved the federal government should be" in determining policies and funding for local public schools.
The Obama side clearly supports the federal government's role in pushing schools toward new standards and certain levels of service, and using increased funding to support those efforts.
The Romney camp clearly breaks from those precedents to allow states more leeway in how they provide education services and how they direct funding to providers -- even those who are private concerns.
Questions about the federal role in education are especially important now when many states could be accused of falling short of meeting their constitutional obligations to provide children with an adequate education.
School funding at the state level is woefully short and increasingly looking bleak. According to a study conducted by the Center on Budget and Policy Priority,
States have made steep cuts to education funding since the start of the recession and, in many states, those cuts deepened over the last year. Elementary and high schools are receiving less state funding in the 2012-13 school year than they did last year in 26 states, and in 35 states school funding now stands below 2008 levels — often far below.
Furthermore, many states are short-changing their schools that need money the most. A recent study issued from the Center for American Progress found that there are many states "where combined state and local revenues are systematically lower in higher-poverty districts -- that is, states with 'regressive' school funding distributions."
"What makes these patterns more offensive," the study author Bruce Baker notes, "is that each of these states is taking billions of statewide taxpayer dollars and channeling them back to lower-poverty districts, which are much less in need of state funding support. These states could achieve far more equitable distribution of resources and far more adequate educational opportunities in high-poverty settings if these resources were allocated based on student need."
The problem of inadequate and inequitable funding is so bad in a state like Texas, for example, attorneys representing around 600 school districts are actually suing the state.
Second, if the media cared at all about education, they would be curious why many of the most ardent critics of the Obama policies, aside from teachers unions, are endorsing him anyway.
It makes sense that teachers unions back the president, because the Romney campaign has so clearly demonized them. But why would other critics of the president's polices, who have less skin in the game, come to his support?
While their endorsements of Obama differ somewhat, what they certainly have in common is that, in Ravitch's words, "as bad as the Obama education policies are, they are tolerable in comparison to what Mitt Romney plans."
What Romney and the Republicans plan, in particular, that frightens them is, in Noguero's words, "nothing other than the promise of more cuts because they see education spending as a wasteful social entitlement."
So dear Media, unless you really wish to "Forget Ed," how about posing to candidates a couple of questions:
"What is the role of the federal government in education and what should it do about states that are drastically underfunding schools -- especially schools serving the most underserved children -- to the extent that they violate their constitutional obligations?"
"What kind of education are America's children entitled to and how much should we spend on it?"
Even with less than two weeks left in the campaign, there's still enough time t ask.
Follow me on Twitter: twitter.com/jeffbcdm