When asked whether he wanted to have dinner at a well-known restaurant, baseball philosopher Yogi Berra remarked, “Nobody goes there anymore. It’s too crowded.”
Today, the same contradiction could be said about the role of public education in American politics. For decades now, the average American voter has included education in their list of the most important policy issues. When it comes to the issues voters care about, our collective attentions are typically focused on jobs and healthcare and national security and … education.
But do such priorities translate into ballots cast? Looking back over the past 30 years, one would be hard pressed to find federal elections that were campaigned on – and decided by – education issues. Bill Clinton ran in 1992 on the economy. Barack Obama won in 2008 seeking change. Donald Trump ran on being anti-Washington. In fact, since the creation of the U.S. Department of Education, perhaps on George W. Bush sought – and won – our nation’s top political job by making education a centerpiece of his political agenda.
So last month, when a coalition of more than 20 left-leaning education and civil rights organizations launched a new effort to highlight education issues in the 2020 campaign, it should have shocked no one that the announcement was met largely with yawns. To paraphrase Berra, we don’t need to make education a centerpiece issue as everyone already believes it is.
Sure, Democratic candidates can talk about free college tuition as one item in a long list of “free stuff” being promised to voters, but such a list is hardly an education policy agenda. Sure, one can promise to boost teacher salaries as a red-meat promise in the teachers union primary, but such a promise is hardly feasible when pay scales are decided by states and localities, not the federal government. And sure, one can promise to make a schoolteacher the next U.S. Education Secretary, but such an assurance is a smack at perhaps the most successful U.S. EdSec in our history, the non-teacher Dick Riley.
Sure, all of these promises may play as niche issues in the pursuit of Democratic primary voters, but they are hardly the planks that a national political campaign with education as a centerpieces are constructed on. And they reflect a lack of understanding of the power of education and its ability to knit together the policy concerns that so many voters share.
Imagine a presidential campaign that talks about early childhood education and the important role it can play in equipping our youngest learners with literacy skills. One that sees preK as actual education and not just babysitting.
Imagine a presidential campaign that talks about k-12 and the importance of outcomes, looking at both what is taught and what is learned. One that moves beyond social promotion and uses the best in cognitive science to ensure that today’s teaching is connecting with a student population that has never been as diverse in both its background and its knowledge as it is today.
Imagine a presidential campaign that talks about teacher education and support where it is similarly focused on outcomes and an educator’s success as teacher of record. One that looks at both the pedagogy and content knowledge teachers need to succeed today while empowering educators to do right by their kids and their community.
Imagine a presidential campaign that talks about postsecondary education in a smart way that promotes the acquisition of knowledge and skills that align with the jobs and career paths of the future. One that looks at high school requirements, two- and four-year college options, and the growing pool of career certificates and related credentials that connect to where the global economy is headed.
Imagine a presidential campaign that values the role and partnership of parents and families in the educational process. One that sees that school improvement – true improvement – is driven by a wide variety of individuals who have a vested interest in seeing our schools, even those that are most struggling, succeed.
Imagine a presidential campaign that sees school choice as an issue of importance to all families, and not just poor families of color. A campaign that believes that access to a high-quality education, whether in k-12 or higher education, should not be dictated solely by one’s zip code or wallet size.
With a strong enough imagination, one can see how a truly education-centered political campaign can impact all of the issues that we seem to care so deeply about. The economy and economic development. Criminal justice. Healthcare and childcare. Immigration and foreign affairs. Jobs and job growth. All are connected with the connective tissue that is education. All made stronger through a stronger attention to, emphasis on, and belief in public education.
While some of us may be offering polite golf claps to the Center for American Progress and other organizations calling for a greater emphasis on education issues this coming election year, the question we should be asking is why is such a call needed? With all of our talk about education, with the collective power a strong national education policy possesses, and with a clear need for a stronger P-20 education continuum, why do we still need to be led by the collective hand to see the need for a greater focus on education?
In Yogi’s words, we are sadly heading to a point where no one votes on education issues anymore; such issues are just discussed too much. And maybe that is the problem. Too much talk, but too little deep, meaningful discussion. As some of us can imagine what education can and should do in our great civil society, far more of us have been disappointed by our general inaction in education and have come to expect nothing beyond the poetry and prose too often coming from those who talk the talk. It’s time for our edu-talk to mean something.