Presidential candidates tend to avoid education issues

Jay Mathews
Columnist June 5, 2011

Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney declared his candidacy for president last week. I went to his Web site to read his ideas about education. There weren’t any. The same thing happened when I went to former House speaker Newt Gingrich’s campaign site.

Former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty’s Web site had a bit more — a piece beating up on teachers unions, a speech saying the federal government should give states more flexibility in fixing schools and an appreciation of former D.C. schools chancellor Michelle A. Rhee. Business executive Herman Cain’s Web site called for less federal and union interference in education reform and more rewards for the best teachers. Rep. Ron Paul (Tex.) wants to end federal education spending, except for tax credits for parents.

Jay Mathews is an education columnist and blogger for the Washington Post, his employer for 40 years. View Archive

That’s about it for the Republican candidates. I couldn’t find official education positions for potential GOP candidates Jon Huntsman, Michele Bachmann or Sarah Palin. Even when the presidential campaign gets hot next year, we won’t hear much about schooling from either party. The government activity that most influences American lives has never inspired much talk by national politicians or much coverage by national media.

Why?

Public schools in America began as local enterprises. They mostly remain so today. Some presidential candidates have tried to make them a big issue. Remember former Vermont governor Howard Dean’s attacks on standardized testing when he sought the Democratic nomination in 2004? It didn’t work. Education issues have never had a significant impact on a national election.

That frustrates many voters, particularly teachers, who think we have gone too far in using standardized tests to measure schools. The teachers unions have tried to get Democratic leaders to do something about this. The major Democratic candidates in 2008, when speaking to teachers groups, called for better assessments. But it wasn’t a major campaign theme.

Democratic and Republican leaders almost never admit this, but in the past 30 years they have been allies in trying to raise achievement by judging schools by test scores. The principles of the 2002 No Child Left Behind law began with Southern Democratic governors such as Richard W. Riley and Bill Clinton in the 1980s.

The two President Bushes picked up that theme, as did many Republican governors. But if Democrat Al Gore had become president in 2001, Congress still would have passed a law much like No Child Left Behind. The 2000 Bush and Gore education platforms were hard to tell apart, other than the routine disagreement over school vouchers (Republicans for, Democrats against) that both parties found useful in giving their bases the false impression that they have deep educational differences.

My colleague Valerie Strauss has turned her lively Answer Sheet blog into a haven for teachers, parents and other school enthusiasts enraged by the grip testing has on education policy. She taps into powerful emotions and compelling arguments. But anti-testing people have little impact on policy because their argument is so hard to sell to voters.

A candidate who says we should not be using tests to judge schools will always be asked in the first debate: “So, you don’t want our schools to be accountable? Taxpayers shouldn’t have some proof that their dollars are well spent?”

I share the concern about standardized tests, particularly those used by states. I would prefer oral or deep essay exams. But like most Americans I am not ready to dump or marginalize the tests we have until we have an acceptable substitute. Standardized tests are flawed, but they make sense in a national culture that insists on fair measures of merit. If you don’t think so, take a look at my hate mail when I rant against the SAT.

The most successful American politicians know that and are no more willing to turn against testing than they are to come up with a radically different system for paying the medical bills of us geezers. I suspect we will straighten out Medicare long before we agree on better ways to measure what our schools are doing. So if you crave an education debate, prepare to be bored in 2012.

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