The Invisible Debate
Education is unlikely to emerge in the 2012 election—and it may be good news if it doesn’t.
There hasn't been much talk about education thus far in the 2012 presidential campaign season-but that may not be a bad thing.
It wasn't until March that front-runner Mitt Romney added an education page to his campaign website and brought former Bush education secretary Margaret Spellings onto his advisory team. Rick Santorum called Barack Obama a snob for wanting every kid to go to college, then retracted the remark when it became clear it wasn't strictly accurate. And that's been about it.
The near-complete absence of any education debate is a contrast from four years ago, when Education Week estimated that three percent of the primary debates addressed education. Moderators asked 20 questions related to education, and candidates sometimes brought the subject up on their own.
That number was down to one percent for 2011-2012, according to a March story in The Washington Post, and it may not change anytime soon.
Why so little debate on education?
For starters, unlike four years ago, there aren't any Democratic primaries and debates. Just as important, none of the Republican front-runners-Romney, Santorum, Gingrich, Paul-ever spent much time on education during their time in office.
In addition, the Obama administration has made it very hard for all but the most conservative Republican lawmakers to disagree with his education initiatives as they do with his health care or foreign policy platforms.
Some insiders say President Obama may have made more progress pushing smaller, bipartisan ideas than if he'd engaged in blustery saber-rattling. "In education reform, I think Obama has done brilliantly, largely because it's out of the press," said Congressman Jim Cooper (D-TN) in a March 19 piece in The New Yorker.
But other observers, like former New York City schools chief Joel Klein, have been dismayed at the lack of campaign debate about education. "Americans must demand from candidates concrete ideas on how to prepare our children to thrive in a global age," wrote Klein in a Washington Post op-ed.
Me, I'm not so sure.
There's no guarantee that the discussion will be constructive. Who knows what kind of crazy stuff will come out? A handful of states are already talking about flunking third graders who haven't mastered reading-a return to the 1990s idea of "banning social promotion" that doesn't seem to have worked. And a small but growing number are putting further limits on sex ed. Clearly, a little education in the wrong hands goes a long way.
Even without the extreme conservatism that's rampant on the Republican side right now, campaigns aren't a particularly good time to generate thoughtful discussion about difficult public policy issues. On the campaign trail, issues are raised and debated based on their short-term political utility rather than their long-term importance or a candidate's sincere beliefs. During a race, most policy issues are turned into campaign ammunition. From a campaign perspective, policy is for suckers.
At the national level, there will almost certainly be more debate about education issues now that the primaries are over. The legality and wisdom of the NCLB "waivers" seems a likely discussion point, along with whether the Common Core standards represent a federal overreach on education.
None of this will be of much help to educators who are dealing with the reality that 37 states are spending less on education now than they were last year, and the threat of an eight to nine percent cut in federal ed revenues come January if Congress and the White House don't reach a deal on government spending.
When it comes to campaign talk about education, more is not necessarily better.