NEW YORK -- Michelle Rhee, the former chancellor of Washington, D.C. public schools, is frustrated. During the first presidential debate two weeks ago, she said she was pleased to see education mentioned a few times. But it stopped there.
"There were a couple comments about education over the course of the evening but both candidates stayed at a very high level in terms of their talking points," Rhee told The Huffington Post. "I want to see more substance."
Approaching the second presidential debate Tuesday night, some advocates have sought to make education a focal point of the election. But with little airtime devoted to the issue, it has stayed mostly on the sidelines. Education is seen primarily as a topic of local concern, and several years' worth of PDK/Gallup polls show that Americans view their local schools and the broader issue of American education as fundamentally different. Advocates say it's because the public hasn't yet connected the dots between the quality of the country’s schools and the economy.
That's why, despite her disappointment, Rhee says she wasn’t surprised by the absence of a spotlight on education in the current election cycle. "It's a disconnect because people see education as a social issue. Social issues tend to get pushed aside or cut," Rhee said. "People have to understand that we are not going to regain our position in the global marketplace, our economic standing again [without better schools.]"
During the first debate, education came up briefly, mostly in the context of funding and the Obama administration's Race to the Top competition. But neither GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney nor President Obama clarified his stance on schools.
Romney's education platform lacks specific policy details -- it is unclear, for example, how Romney's voucher-like program to provide all students the chance to attend private schools would work. And Romney's education plans tend to change based on the situation. On the other hand, Obama has made his education record a prominent component of stump speeches and campaign advertisements, while making few campaign promises on the topic. During his first term, Obama has vacillated between appeasing two key constituents: teachers unions and the so-called "education reform" movement. It is unclear which side Obama would favor without the pressure of an upcoming election.
Going into the second debate, Rhee wants to hear "more specifics about the policies" and "more detailed follow-up questions." She noted that the two candidates are similar on specific education policies, but differ on the role the federal government should play in education.
The overall lack of pushback on the candidates' education platforms gives them room to change their positions. During the course of his candidacy, Romney has wavered on where exactly he stands on spending federal money to hire more teachers. The Republican presidential candidate mocked Obama in June for proposing the hiring of more public sector employees, stating:
[Obama] wants another stimulus, he wants to hire more government workers. He says we need more firemen, more policemen, more teachers. Did he not get the message of Wisconsin? The American people did. It's time for us to cut back on government and help the American people.
Days later, after his opponents quickly seized upon those comments, Romney attempted to walk them back, calling accusations that he would be opposed to hiring more teachers "completely absurd."
When the first debate raised the topic of education, Romney again presented himself as a fan of hiring more teachers. "Well, first, I love great schools. … And the key to great schools, great teachers," Romney said. "So I reject the idea that I don’t believe in great teachers or more teachers. Every school district, every state should make that decision on their own." He also promised not to cut education funding and stated his fondness for Big Bird, the ubiquitous yellow bird of the PBS show "Sesame Street" and symbol of children's education programming.
In what may be seen as an example of the lack of substantive discussion on education policy, the mention became the subject of several exchanges between the Romney and Obama camps, with the media and the Obama campaign in particular citing Romney's openness to cutting public broadcasting funds -- and Big Bird -- as emblematic of his true, broader position on education.
But in an interview with the Des Moines Register, the GOP nominee took a different tone, once again suggesting that the president's idea to hire more teachers is misguided and would not result in economic growth:
He wants to hire more school teachers. We all like school teachers. It’s a wonderful thing. Typically, school teachers are hired by states and localities, not by the federal government. But hiring school teachers is not going to raise the growth of the U.S. economy over the next three-to-four years.
Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers union, said Romney's varied remarks lead to confusion. "Which Romney will show up at this debate?" she asked. "The Romney who said I'm not going to cut education, or the Romney who said I'm going to cut education by 40 percent?"
For the president, the need to invest in education -- from hiring more teachers to making college more affordable -- has been a staple of his messaging since he began crisscrossing the country in the pursuit of his reelection. And for that very reason, his campaign found an immediate window to attack Romney on education after the appointment of Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) to the Republican presidential ticket.
The Wisconsin congressman is synonymous with his controversial budget plan -- which called for 20 percent cuts to domestic discretionary spending, including funding for Pell Grants. And while Romney quickly moved to distance himself from his running mate’s budget plan -- despite embracing it earlier -- Obama hasn’t shied away from associating his opponent with the Republican vice presidential nominee’s proposed cuts to education.
Vice President Joe Biden deliberately raised the education funding issue during the vice presidential debate last week, trying to force Ryan to answer for those aspects of his budget. But because the subject did not come up until the end of the debate, it was mostly glossed over, enabling Ryan to skirt around a definitive response as to where a Romney-Ryan administration would stand on funding.
The Romney campaign has reiterated its candidate's pledge to not cut education spending -- a move that has forced Obama advisors to stop painting Romney's education vision as one that takes a hatchet to education. Instead, the Obama campaign has taken to contrasting Obama's investments in education with Romney's opposition to increasing spending.
"I expect as long as the opportunities present themselves, and [as long as] he can find a way to create those opportunities, you'll see a continued focus on education in the next debate," Jon Schnur, who has been advising Obama on education since 2008, told The Huffington Post. While education-centric campaign advertisements have focused more on Obama's record instead of his campaign promises, Schnur said that in a second term, Obama would seek to implement proposals that have floundered up until now -- like a Race to the Top competition for higher education, as the president mentioned in the State of the Union but which has failed to receive any congressional funding.
Phil Handy, a Romney education advisor, said in a Monday debate with Schnur that it is possible to "hold public education harmless" -- protect education funding from cuts -- while still reducing the deficit.
Handy said he's not holding his breath for an education mention tonight. "It's a town hall meeting, it's hard to prepare," he said. "In the first debate, there was more discussion of education than we expected." Handy said that Romney "gets" education, and that he has pushed the candidate to stress it more, arguing that the issue polls high among Latino and female voters -- constituencies that Romney has struggled with and needs in order to improve his chances of winning on Nov. 6.
As education insiders keep their eyes on tonight's debate, Obama will likely force the issue, at least when it comes to his talking points and pressing his opponent on the critical issue of school funding. And though Romney's pledge in the last debate to not cut education dollars won the applause of advocates, it was Big Bird who stole the spotlight. For both candidates, the absence of a robust conversation about specific education policies in the 2012 race is likely to persist in Tuesday's night's debate and on to the polls.