The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Candidates this November are studiously ignoring an issue that affects 50 million kids. We know, because we scoured their platforms.

A fifth-grader in Middletown, Del. (AP Photo/Steve Ruark)
Placeholder while article actions load

Education, the polls say, is a perennial worry for voters. More than three-quarters of the public give America’s public schools a “C” or lower; 58 percent think K-12 education is on the wrong track; Gallup found earlier this year that 81 percent of Americans called “extremely important” for the president and Congress to address. And this year has brought plenty of education news to worry over: the Common Core Standards in math and English that became a matter of heated national debate this year; President Obama’s $70 billion proposal to expand pre-K; New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio costly pre-K expansion in the Big Apple; and the Vergara lawsuit in Los Angeles, where a state judge ruled that California’s teacher tenure system violated the rights of low-income and minority students. Given all this tumult, which of these reforms are Republican and Democratic candidates for governor or the U.S. Senate most aggressively championing this fall?

The answer: none of them.

A systematic analysis of campaign Web sites for the 139 major party candidates for governor or U.S. senator (there is no Democrat running for the Kansas Senate seat) shows that most hopefuls have little to say on any of these pressing questions.

Topics familiar to education reformers seem foreign to sitting and aspiring governors. Only three Republican gubernatorial candidates mention teacher tenure reform on their Web sites, while not a single Democratic candidate does. Just three out of 35 Democratic candidates mention the bipartisan cause of charter schools; perhaps even more surprising is that barely one-third of the Republicans do. In fact, just four Republicans gubernatorial candidates suggest that money should follow students to the school of their choice. Even on bread-and-butter topics, discussion is sparse: Only one gubernatorial candidate in 10 mentions community colleges, while just three out of 70 mention that they should be helping more students to graduate from high school.

On the Senate side, things are much the same. Only one candidate for the U.S. Senate even alludes to teacher tenure, and only two mention high school graduation rates. Despite the efforts of organizations such as Democrats for Education Reform, no Democratic senate candidates mention charter schools. And for all the talk about preparing a 21st century workforce, only five Republican candidates talk about improving science, technology and math (STEM) education.

When it comes to the Common Core, the fact that so few candidates take a stance on the issue is glaring. Opposition to the Common Core may be a rallying cry for Tea Party conservatives, but less than one-third of Republican gubernatorial candidates criticize it. Democratic candidates favor the Common Core two-to-one — among the only three who ventured to express an opinion.

For all the talk about national pre-K, only 16 out of 69 would-be senators and 17 out of 70 gubernatorial hopefuls even mention it, and support for it skews overwhelmingly Democratic.

The one subject on which candidates reliably have something to say makes them sound like holdovers from the 1990s. Just over half the candidates for governor — for whom K-12 and higher education will prove to be the largest budget item — call for increasing education funding. This includes almost 55 percent of Republicans and fewer than 50 percent of the Democrats.

But even the calls for more funds tend to sound like he-said-she-said bickering rather than a real debate over priorities in an era of tight budgets. Rick Snyder, the Republican governor of Michigan, boasts that he increased funding by $660 per pupil, while his Democratic opponent, Mark Schauer, alleges that Snyder made “deep cuts” and vows to restore the funds. Rick Scott, the Republican governor of Florida, claims a $2.3 billion increase in state education funding, whereas his Democratic opponent, Charlie Christ, claims that Scott has cut spending. Pity the voter without an accounting degree who has to make sense of all this.

Politicians often campaign on promises and then struggle to keep them once in office. When it comes to education, in this election it seems that politicians aren’t even bothering to take a stance on the current reform debates. So, despite the buzz around education reform, there’s little reason to expect significant policymaking in the next two years. Ultimately, this shows that it will take more than a handful of high-profile stories on each coast to affect a sea change in education across the country.