The Silent Issue: With Education Getting Short Shrift This Election Season, Where Do Sens. McCain and Obama Really Stand on Improving Schools, and How Might Their Plans Impact Your District?

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FORMER 2008 PRESIDENTIAL hopeful Gov. Bill Richardson (D-N.M.) proudly declared during a Democratic debate in late 2007, "I want to be the education president." You would be hard-pressed to find similar claims in the public statements of the current presumptive nominees--Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Barack Obama (D-III.). It might be an overstatement to say that education has not factored into their campaigns at all, but it hasn't exactly loomed large either.

"When people are losing their home through foreclosures of losing their jobs ... it's hard to get a focus on education," news anchor and author Jim Lehrer said at the National School Boards Association annual conference in March. "'[he candidates are largely ignoring the issue."

In a rousing moment during a debate in February, Obama passionately stated, "We're going to have to invest in infrastructure. We have to invest in science and technology. We have to vastly improve our education system. We have to look at energy, and the potential for creating green jobs."

Education has recently enjoyed some increased popularity through hot-button issues like the federal No Child Left Behind law and merit pay, but when framed in such lofty rhetoric, it has functioned more like a political middle child--sandwiched between other things and rarely getting the undivided attention it deserves.

Compare the numbers. In a 2000 Harris poll, 25 percent of Americans identified education as one of the two most important issues for the government to address, but by 2007 that percentage had dropped to only seven. And in a 2000 Gallup poll, about 17 percent of Americans saw education as "the most important problem" facing the country. For the same poll in early 2008, that number was down to 3 percent.

Polls can be highly subjective and biased, but they do beg the question: If education was ever truly a problem, it must not be anymore--right?

Glory Days

Cynics might characterize any hoopla over candidates' lack of campaigning on education as old hat, but the fact of the matter is that the 2008 presidential election is one of the few recent elections in which education has not played a very large role, experts say.

"Education has been a hot topic in past elections, marked by energetic reform," says Chester E. Finn Jr., president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a Washington D.C.-based education reform group. "Now in 2008 it's a nonissue."

George H.W. Bush wanted to be known as an education president during his 1988 campaign, says Finn, and of course George W. Bush ran for president as the education reformer from Texas who pledged to improve schools, increase accountability and eliminate the achievement gap throughout the country. (Administrators have his enactment of NCLB as a result.)

Bill Clinton ran twice with education as a significant part of his campaign, and upon election his administration had a goal of connecting every classroom and every library to the Internet.

"This is the first time since either 1980 or 1984--depending on how you parse the Reagan second term election--that education has not loomed large, or at least large-ish as a presidential campaign issue," says Finn, who adds that it was in 1983, after al[, when the landmark report

A Nation at Risk carne out.

"The two mega-issues are always peace and prosperity. When one of them is on the table in a particular year, that's the dominant issue," says William Galston, a former policy adviser to President Clinton and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, a public policy think tank. "When they're both on the table simultaneously, that is the election."

Today, when education surfaces on the campaign trail through NCLB discussions, McCain expresses nothing but support for the law and its aims to increase school accountability and "focus attention on the realities of how students perform against a common standard. …