10/05/2012 01:31 pm ET Updated Dec 05, 2012

With Few Political Points to Gain, Candidates Duck Education Conversation


Forgive me if what I write next is considered controversial, especially just a month away from a presidential election, when everything with a policy bent is viewed as a referendum on one of the candidates. It may provoke controversy less for the ire it might draw and more in its raw and unadulterated idealism--a bit naïve, some might say, but the truth is, not all that far from reality.

Education is not a partisan issue.

And you're forgiven if you think otherwise based on words written on these very pages, but evidence at nearly every level of government bears it out: there is a genuine thirst from Democrats and Republicans alike to find common ground on all issues related to education reform, including what some people call the most contentious among them: school vouchers and providing more educational choice to low-income families.

When Jack Jennings wrote last month that politics is the reason Republicans support vouchers for children from low-income families and those with special needs, he argued that the so-called shift is a recent one--that not until the past two decades did the party embrace public and private schools as partners in delivering education in this country.

The problem is that, historically, that's simply not true. William Henry Seward, Abraham Lincoln's Secretary of State and a governor of New York, in 1839 proposed using public funds for private schools as a way of combating growing illiteracy and poverty among many public school attendees. Accusations that Ulysses S. Grant held animus towards public/private partnerships had little to do with actual ideology and more with drawing contrasts with his opponents.

Historic support for educational choice from Republicans is real, just as is modern-day support for those same policies from Democrats, myself included. There are no political motivations involved--there's not a whole lot of political upside in making friends with the folks on the other side of the aisle, as the last year of the bitter presidential race has made clear--but it's a testament to the collective commitment to solving our education crisis that traditions of blue and red are becoming varying hues of purple.

Just ask Michelle Rhee. Defenders of the education status quo are quick to paint her as outside the mainstream of Democratic dogma because she's aligned herself with other reform-minded governors--yes, Republicans--like Indiana's Mitch Daniels and Louisiana's Bobby Jindal. It begs the question: do bipartisan policy solutions mean that one side is a secret puppet for the other? Or can we finally be willing to uncover the diamond-like truth in the rough of modern-day American politics--that education reform is being embraced by the unlikeliest of bedfellows?

The fact is, when it comes to education reform, traditional party breakdowns no longer apply. Perhaps because of that fact, the subject isn't a conversation that a lot of folks are eager to have in the midst of a presidential campaign, but is it not the true test of presidential leadership to advocate for what's most important, not to follow the fleeting whims of the media story of the moment? There's no doubt that people care most about the economy, yes, but there's arguably no more important issue to the future of our economic standing in the world than how we educate our children.

And in a country when more than one student drops out of school every 29 seconds--in which egregious inequality has become a defining, and sadly acceptable component of our lagging educational system--we do an economic disservice to ourselves by steering clear of the legitimate crisis at hand.

Sure, it may not win political points, but the best politics is an awareness of, and an engagement with, the big problems that are most pressing to our future.

Including the vice presidential debates, there are still three more chances left for the candidates to truly engage in this issue--to give it more than a passing reference or two in the midst of the partisan back-and-forth.

At least two of those debates will be about domestic policy. And there's much agreement that the best way to truly get our house in order is to make sure our schools are, too.

Malcom Glenn is the National Director of Communications for the American Federation for Children.