And the focus on education -- an issue that doesn't cut neatly between Democrats and Republicans -- might prove tricky for former Mass. Gov. Mitt Romney, whose education policies are similar in substance, if not in tone, to those of President Barack Obama.
So far, education has only arisen on the campaign trail when candidates try to bolster their conservative credentials. According to an analysis by The Guardian, education only comprised one percent of debate questions.
But according to the College Board survey out Wednesday, this may soon change as candidates pivot to court that all-important category of general election voters: citizens of swing states. When asked to rank issues in order of importance, education ranked third -- and 67 percent of swing voters listed the issue as "extremely important." Black, Hispanic, Democratic and female voters are most likely to rank education toward the top of their list.
Education, an issue with little immediate payout and consequence, is not traditionally something upon which people base their vote, but the survey suggests this may be changing. "I'm pleased by the fact that people are starting to understand the connection between educational attainment and job opportunity, and economic success in the country," says Joel Klein, a News Corporation executive who previously led New York City's schools. Klein recently railed against the lack of education content in the campaign and released a report arguing that education is a national security issue. "It reflects an evolution in the way Americans have thought about these issues."
And as this reality changes, Romney, the GOP candidate with the most delegates and three primary wins on Tuesday, will have to differentiate his education policies from Obama's. In earlier debates, Romney praised the Obama administration's Race to the Top competition, which rewarded states for signing on to specific reforms, such as grading teachers according to their students' test scores.
The similarities between Obama's and Romney's policies became clearer on Tuesday, when Romney discussed education during a broader conversation about taxes and jobs Tuesday on Fox News' "On the Record with Greta Van Susteren."
"We were able to drive our state to be number one of all 50 states in the nation. We did that by having more school choice, more accountability in schools. We tested our kids to see who was passing and failing," Romney said. "If a school was failing consistently, the state was able to take over the school and also eliminate provisions that were in the union contract if they were deemed to be interfering with the education of a child."
Romney added: "You're going to have to find across this country a recognition that teachers' unions have to take a back seat to the interest of our kids."
Although the Obama administration has softened its tone toward teachers and has been less explicitly harsh toward unions, several administration policies have angered teachers' unions, in a departure from traditional Democratic politics.
"It is not yet clear to me how he'll distinguish himself [from Obama]," Klein said. Obama and Romney do have different stances on vouchers, which allow parents to pay for private, often religious schools with tax dollars.
While the College Board poll didn't get into specific policy questions related to teaching or teachers' unions, it did find that the majority of swing voters view increased education funding as an important issue, and that 55 percent of swing voters would pay $200 more in taxes to get more money to schools.
Pollsters Geoff Garin and Whit Ayres surveyed 1,839 swing voters in Florida, North Carolina, Virginia, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Colorado, Nevada and New Mexico between March 15 and March 20. The survey had a 95 percent confidence level and 2.3 percent margin of error. They found that swing voters associate candidates who talk about education with positive attributes.
The College Board also hosted a candidates' forum on education last fall but the candidates didn't talk to each other -- and only two (Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum) showed up in the flesh, with Michele Bachmann and Herman Cain participating remotely. Romney did not participate.
"At that point, it was never a priority for them," says Klein, who moderated the event. Klein says he'll share his ideas with any candidates who call him -- and that the Romney campaign has contacted him up for pointers.
Romney is rumored to be preparing a policy address on education, though his campaign did not return requests for comment. According to a Romney insider who spoke on condition of anonymity, the campaign had aimed to give the speech in Florida after winning that state and the South Carolina primary, but that, of course, did not go according to plan.
So far, the Obama campaign has stressed higher education issues, with Rep. Paul Ryan's (R-Wis.) Pell Grant-slashing budget providing a convenient foil to Obama's arguments. Vice President Joe Biden and U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan have made several swing-state trips in the last few months -- including one to Virginia on Tuesday -- where they have touted the administration's college affordability plans. This topic polls well -- with swing voters listing college affordability and federal tuition grants as the second- and third-most important education issues -- and may provide another opportunity for Romney, who has endorsed Ryan's budget, to contrast himself with Obama on education.
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