Why ED in '08 won't sway Iowans tonight, or other Americans thereafter

Liam Julian

Marc Lampkin--who runs the Bill Gates and Eli Broad-funded $60 million "ED in '08" initiative to make education a top-tier issue in the presidential campaign--doesn't believe that his purpose is to make education a top-tier issue in the presidential campaign.

An article last month in Education Week quotes Lampkin: "Making this [education] a top issue was not the end in itself. Ultimately, it's not about where you stand in the polls. It's about whether the candidates, and the next president, are adopting the right policies."

Really? ED in '08's website states, "Our goal is to ensure that the nation engages in a rigorous debate and to make education a top priority in the 2008 presidential election."

But don't blame Lampkin. As a paid political consultant, his job is to spin, and to contain expectations. And he's surely smart enough to see the writing on the wall: Education is not, nor will it be, a top priority in 2008, despite any organization's efforts.

The country, it seems, is right now uninterested in hearing candidates speak deeply about the subject. Evidence abounds. For example, of those Iowans surveyed in a November New York Times/CBS News poll, only 4 percent of Democrats and 3 percent of Republicans called education their most important issue when deciding for whom to vote for president (in New Hampshire, 5 percent of Democrats and 3 percent of Republicans named ed their top priority). Voters today are far less concerned with education than in the 2000 election, when, in a CNN exit poll, 15 percent called education the issue they most valued.

A recent spread in the New York Times broke down the primary candidates' positions on the big issues. Education wasn't even one of those included.

Why has ED in '08's intended wallop been so glancing? Don't Americans care about their nation's schools anymore?

Of course they do. But other more-pressing problems (that weren't around in 2000) currently exist. The war, of course, but also immigration, the economy, and even global warming. And then there's this: Presidential candidates are running for national office, and Americans are growing increasingly displeased with the feds' influence in education--call it federal fatigue.

According to the most recent Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup poll of the public's attitudes about schools, 40 percent of those surveyed in 2007 had an unfavorable view of No Child Left Behind, up from only 13 percent in 2003. In 2007, a mere 31 percent had a favorable view of the law. It seems that NCLB's unintended consequences--schooldays focused overmuch on reading and math, states that game the system by implementing shoddy tests--are being felt. New York Times education reporter Sam Dillon recently wrote that stumping Democrats in Iowa are pillorying NCLB. Not that either the New York Times or harsh campaign rhetoric is always accurate (see here), but both respond to, and set, public opinion.

Against this backdrop, ED in '08 faces an uphill battle to make voters want not less but more education ideas from Washington, D.C. Instead of using its dollars to, say, significantly influence state policymakers, who operate closer to both their constituents and the schools their constituents' children attend, ED in '08 has created a national campaign in search of a dwindling audience.

Nor can the group be feisty about promoting its agenda. The initiative's 501(c)(3) status makes it difficult to launch any spirited criticisms of an individual presidential candidate's education policies. Thus, the organization is reduced to urging all candidates to speak more frequently and directly about education, and when they do not, ED in '08 can impugn them only as a group--an ineffective way to turn up the pressure.

The motivations of those responsible for the ED in '08 campaign are surely good and true. They're dissatisfied with America's second-rate public schools, they believe lousy schools deprive kids of opportunities and the nation of talent, and they want to fix the problem.

Yet, ED in '08 won't accomplish its goal. The timing is all wrong, because, in the shadow of NCLB, our nation currently wants to see less federal intervention in its classrooms, not more. The $60 million investment hasn't thus far paid off, and it doesn't look likely that it will.

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