Is Education Missing from the '08 Election?

 By Lawrence Hardy

The eclectic cast of characters electrified the room. Civil rights leader Al Sharpton and former Colorado Gov. Roy Romer, education reformers and big-city school superintendents, the mayors of Newark, N.J., and Washington, D.C. -- all convened on the eve of the Democratic National Convention to discuss the “Ed Challenge for Change.”

“The energy in that room was really amazing,” says Rachel Bird, senior policy analyst for Ed in ’08, a Bill Gates- and Eli Broad-funded project to increase the visibility of education issues in the presidential race.

It seemed, Bird adds, that education as a campaign issue “was gaining momentum in that room, right there.”

As summer moved into fall, however, that momentum tumbled as quickly as the stock market. Now, with weeks to go before Election Day, more pressing topics -- led by the faltering economy at home and the war in Iraq -- are vying for the candidates’ attention. Even the Ed in ’08 leaders, who pledged to spend $60 million to raise awareness about public education, have seen the writing on the wall. By early October, the campaign had ended with only $24 million spent.

So where does public education fall now? Michael A. Resnick, associate executive director for advocacy and issues management for the National School Boards Association, says it is “in the upper end of a ‘tier-two’ priority” in the presidential campaign.

Regardless of education’s stature between now and Nov. 4, it certainly will be a pressing issue for the new Congress and administration, thanks to the No Child Left Behind Act. Whether it is abandoned (highly unlikely), reauthorized in its present form (equally improbable), or substantially changed, the monumental law could provoke strong feelings on issues such as standardized testing, school choice, and teacher quality. Differences, both philosophical and practical, are bound to surface during the upcoming debate.

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