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there's the topic, and then there's the discussion about the topic, and then there's the discussion about how important the topic is, and then there's-where was I?

A lot of attention yesterday given to a project called ED in ’08 which has as its goal “to ensure that the nation engages in a rigorous debate and to make education a top priority in the 2008 presidential election.” I’m ambivalent. I’m for the rigorous debate business, although of course it’s unclear to me whether they want debate or actual policies. That is, I suspect that they want certain policies implemented, and they are encouraging debate insofar as it is a good path toward getting those policies implemented. The relevant question here is this: Would EDin’08 prefer that all the candidates agree on policy matters, or would it prefer that they disagree, provide reasons for their disagreement, and spend rhetorical capital on persuading people to their differing policy positions?

But perhaps they really do want debate, because after all the Presidency of the United States is a job that only very distantly concerns education policy. Oh, there’s a Department of Education, sure, and the President can choose to send legislation to the Congress that uses the funding lever to pry up local policies, but really, the President has fuck-all to do with schools.

Back when I was in a congressional district with an open seat and a wide-open primary race, I attended a debate amongst eight or twelve candidates, who spent a long time talking about local educational concerns. After a while of this, one candidate was called on to speak and said “You know, the federal budget covers about 1% of local education. I’d double that to 2%, myself, but that’s still not very much. The federal budget covers (some huge percentage) of our affordable housing costs, though, and I’d like to talk more about that...” I liked the guy.

We have a tendency to mix up the fact that people care about education—and we should—with the fact that we care about a particular election—those of us who do—to get the sense that any particular election should be about education. Sometimes a particular candidate has something serious to say, as Our Only President did with his plan to vastly increase the funding and reach of the federal government. If somebody wants to reverse that, or extend it, then fine, that becomes part of the Presidential Debate. But the list of things over which the President has substantial authority and on which the candidates have differing prescriptions is very large and includes the situation in Iraq and its neighbors; larger foreign policy questions including the Middle East, Russia, China and South Asia; trade, particularly connected to issues of climate change, human rights and jobs; labor, domestic and international; energy, both conservation and investment; climate change, both prevention and amelioration of effects; law enforcement, both domestically and internationally; privacy, human rights and habeas corpus; appointments to the judiciary and the executive; and I’m sure half-a-dozen things that I’m not thinking of at the moment. Transportation issues. There is no shortage of real issues that have something substantial to do with how the candidates would govern as President. However important education is, if the candidates don’t have substantially differing views, then there seems no need to inject it into the debate.

On the other hand, the quadrennial choosing is one of our opportunities to address policy issues on a national level. The advantage of “making education a top priority in the 2008 election” is that it may be the best chance of making education policy a national topic of conversation. And if you think that there is a national problem with our education systems, and if you think that it admits of a federal solution, or at least that federal action is a necessary part of that solution, this is your shot. You can’t really (or can you?) address the issue nationally in 435 Congressional races and thirty-odd Senatorial races. You go to war with the national conversation you have, not the national conversation you want.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,


Well, and it's a fair bet that if you can get Da Publick to think that education is a top priority in the presidential election, that's likely to trickle over into the Congressional elections. No?

It strikes me a little like the CO2 page thingy -- you're not necessarily trying to push people to say certain things on their CO2 page, you just want every site to HAVE a CO2 page. Similarly, Melinda Gates and her friends want every candidate to be pressured to think and talk seriously about education and what they would do about it.

It reminds me of a bit on The West Wing where they're planning how to get around the soft money rules by making "issue" ads that are actually campaign ads, but then they realize that if they make some actual issue ads -- "All over America, school buildings are crumbling..." -- it will, in fact, help the Democrats. My guess is that we'll see a lot of ads about how schools are falling apart and we're failing our children and so forth, and I don't think the Republicans will get very far by responding with school vouchers and No Child Left Behind.

The Federal Government has leveraged that 1% of education budgets that it provides into huge mandates for what neighborhood public schools are going to do all over the country. Given that that 1% of the education budget is surely a lot bigger than the $60 million the Ed in 08 people are planning to put up, and given that the total public school budget, so leveraged, is (if my mathematical faculties have not altogether failed me) 100 times larger, . I can easily see why smart (power-mad) people with $60 million of petty cash would decide that this was a good use of their money, if they wanted to set the direction of public education in the United States.

I don't agree with what the Ed in 08 people want, at all. If they succeed in making education an issue, I hope they fail in setting the agenda for education policy. I would be greatly pleased if they raised the profile of the issue only to open the way for other responses to the issue to gain support.

No Child Left Behind is having a tremendously destructive impact on public education in the United States, and we should get rid of it. I would put revamping No Child Left Behind and federal involvement in public education on a list of the truly pressing issues that the next administration will need to address. So I'm all for having the subject of education be a part of the 2008 Presidential election, especially since the execrable NCLB passed with bi-partisan support. It can't be assumed, then, that all Democratic candidates will be against it, until they all have stated clearly that they are. Until that time comes (and I know that there's a lot of effort going in to educating Democrats in Congress on this issue right now), it seems good to have a debate.

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