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Making Education A Big Issue For The 2008 Campaign

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Can $60 million make a difference?

Last week, the Gates and Broad foundations announced that former Colorado Governor (and LA schools superintendent) Roy Romer would help lead a new $60 million initiative to make education a top issue in the 2008 presidential campaign - one of the biggest single-issue efforts ever mounted.

The next night, eight Democratic presidential aspirants debated for the first time, and the education issue was nowhere to be found.

Ditto for the Republican debate last night in Simi Valley. It was a complete shutout.

Eli Broad and the Gates Foundation understand that engaging the public on education reform is just as important as education reform itself. And education is an issue that -- to some extent -- people understand is important even if it doesn't affect them immediately.

To be sure, $60 million is a lot of money. Former DNC chair Roy Romer is a formidable advocate for education as well as a savvy politician, and he's backed up by a bipartisan group of political operatives.

The early press coverage has been impressive - NPR's On Point, MTV, and the major dailies have all covered it. There's even a blog written by Romer on the site, which is full of all the latest bells and whistles (flash, etc.). And of course there are countless debates to come.

But education has a long track record for being discussed only intermittently, and for being influential only in the rarest of circumstances. Nearly every candidate has an education plan but few races are influenced by education issues (unless you count social issues like prayer in the classroom, creationism, support for private and parochial schools, etc.)

Even the 2000 election, which some say brought education to a new high, wasn't won or lost on education issues. And the odds are stacked in particular against domestic issues this time around.

So what will it take to make American voters - and the politicians who woo them - think about education as anything more than a big snooze or an opportunity for platitudes and sound bites? What, short of a daily plug from Stephen Colbert, could create the drumbeat needed to press education issues to the front?

Well, more high-level scandal might help.

The student lending scandal, including loan industry executives brought in to work at the US Department of Education, affects countless students and has brought attention to a topic that usually brings editors and the general public to tears of boredom.

And the Reading First scandal, which includes charges of mismanagement and conflicts of interest in the Bush administration's premier early literacy program, now includes sexy stuff like subpoenas, Justice Department referrals, and the possibility that the White House will claim executive privilege rather than turn over documents relating to the early administration of the program.

But it's hard to generate scandal, and hard to maintain interest and momentum over time with reports and events.

To have any hope of creating real interest and engagement, ED In '08 will have to create an honest dialogue over core, visceral education questions, and then try and referee the spin and misinformation that will follow.

These questions include why it's considered perfectly fine to give public money to private colleges but not to private elementary schools, school funding and teacher salaries, why some schools do so well educating one group of kids but not the other, whether local control -- 15,000 semi-autonomous school districts and 50 states - makes sense in the 21st century, and whether it's in the national interest for teachers to continue to be unionized. And charters. And privatization.

So far, at least, ED In '08 seems to be shying away from most of these hot-button issues, focusing instead on more mainstream ideas like extended learning (ie, a longer school year and day), teacher incentives, and uniform academic standards.

That's as far as they go. The organization says that it takes no positions on what should be done, on specific legislation, or on candidates, which makes it hard to argue for massive change. While ED In '08 should be all about exposing holes in the candidates' anticipated proposals, and watchdogging their ads and rhetoric, it says it cannot endorse candidates or specific legislation because of its tax-exempt status.

Of course, the verdict is still out, and we're all hoping for the effort's success. But it seems like ED In '08 is going to have to do more, and do it differently, to make a real dent in the political process.

The first step? Finding a way out of that tax-exempt prison so that they can weigh in forcefully on proposals, legislation, and candidates.