Politicians and public education

While some wizened observers of American electoral politics contend that education just “doesn’t have legs” as a Presidential campaign issue, some influential national leaders are working to put the future of our public schools on the 2008 race track.

You may have heard about the recent announcement that two of our nation’s wealthiest business leaders are creating a $60 million campaign fund to — as Education Week put it — “ensure strong billing for education, and to help shape debate on the issue.” Bill Gates (who needs no introduction) and Eli Broad (builder of two Fortune 500 companies), through their respective foundations, have put forth a fairly generic agenda for their Strong American Schools campaign (again quoting Ed Week) “to promote strong and consistent academic standards across the states, to create incentives to ensure all classrooms have high-quality teachers, and to provide more time and support for learning.”

The agenda doesn’t excite education research maven Gerald Bracey, who says, in this Huffington Post blog, that “To date, the agenda has all of the excitement of drying paint: longer school year, longer school day, stronger and more uniform standards, merit pay for high-quality teaching.”

But Ed in ’08 campaign chairman Roy Romer, former Colorado governor and Los Angeles school superintendent, believes the campaign will result in more nuanced discussions of what makes schools effective. On the issue of performance-pay, Romer told Ed Week: “We need to pay more for teachers with certain subject-matter skills, for teachers teaching in challenged schools. We also need to measure the effectiveness of teachers, not by one simple test…and compensate those for proven performance.”

When we heard about the Gates/Broad announcement, we couldn’t help but recall the late March forum sponsored by the Public Education Network, titled “Do Americans Care if Politicians Care About Public Education?” PEN convened a bipartisan panel of “pundits, pollsters, and political advisors” to explore ways in which public education can be positioned as a key national election issue. The participants included Richard W. Riley, former U.S. Secretary of Education and former governor of South Carolina; Thomas H. Kean, former governor of New Jersey; Jonathan Alter, senior editor of Newsweek; Ed Goeas, president and CEO of The Tarrance Group; Jay Mathews, education columnist for the Washington Post; Frank Newport, editor-in-chief of The Gallup Poll, and others.

You can listen to the Forum discussion online, where you will hear polling experts say that the public will engage in a national debate about education IF “we remind them of its importance,” and also hear this comment by education writer Jay Mathews: “If we can get the public involved in education on moral grounds, we can make some headway.”

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