06/20/2012 10:40 am ET Updated Aug 20, 2012

Don't Forget Ed!

Every hour of every school day 857 American students abandon their educations. Their decisions to drop out of school dramatically increase the odds that these young Americans will struggle to find a good job, struggle to lead a healthy life, and struggle not to become a burden on taxpayers. In fact, the crisis in American education is at the root of every major challenge facing our nation -- from the stubborn rate of unemployment to the high costs of health care to our waning competitiveness in the global economy.

No serious person disputes that the American education system is failing, but we have no consensus on how to fix it. President Obama and Governor Romney both have addressed aspects of our education problem, sometimes forcefully, but with so much of America's future riding on the state of our schools, there is much more for them to say. A presidential campaign presents a unique opportunity to debate competing visions for repairing American schools and then, after the voters decide, implement one of those visions.

So why don't we hear the candidates talk more about fixing our schools? It is not for lack of political relevance: more than two-thirds of voters in nine key swing states consider education to be "extremely important" in this year's election, according to a recent poll sponsored by the College Board. Voters clearly understand the need to improve American schools; now we need to take the next step and discuss how to do it. Granted, this is not an easy conversation. From my own experience as a governor, I understand the challenge of telling voters the harsh truth about education.

The remedy to our education ills will involve confronting thorny issues like increasing investment in schools, raising standards and developing alternative paths to graduation -- all of which will take time to produce positive results. That's a tough pill to swallow, but it's medicine we badly need. Experts and journalists repeatedly tell us that the coming election will be determined by economic issues. As true as that might be, our economy simply will not grow if we don't educate our kids. The countries we compete with are the same ones that are beating us in the academic rankings in which the U.S. is now 25th in math and 21st in science. Our national interest requires that we resolve how to address our failing school system now.

To that end, the presidential candidates must lay out their ideas for transforming American education. Leadership is all about a willingness to take on the tough issues and make the hard decisions. At the same time, the American public also must step up. Unless we demonstrate a loud, audible demand for fixing education, then we have only ourselves to blame if the problems are ignored. That is why the College Board is launching a nationwide effort called "Don't Forget Ed" that is elevating education in the presidential campaign. It is designed to give the candidates cause to deliver a serious, thorough plan for reviving education in America. Voters want and deserve a clear and thoughtful debate on a challenge that must be fixed if this country is to maintain its leadership in the world. Nothing less than the future of our nation is at stake.