08/07/2007 01:03 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Can the Dems Stand Up to the Unions?

The recent Republican debate in Iowa showed once again the media's failure to hold the candidates accountable to answer questions about America's K-12 education crisis. Instead we got more of the same: chatter about Iraq, finger pointing on abortion, and tummy tickles about Jane Fonda and Dr. Strangelove. If we want to address the education gap in our country, a good start is to address the education gap in our presidential debates.

Today, MSNBC will broadcast a debate hosted by the AFL-CIO in Chicago, this time for the Democrats. Now the Dems have a long history as union-lovers, and for sure, the candidates will be aiming to please, but I'm waiting for someone to stop tiptoeing around the issues and offer working families the leadership and ideas our country needs. Real talk about education is one way to do that, and you don't have to be talking to the NEA or AFT to strike a chord. It's time people realized that other unions, like the building trades, are concerned about K-12 education too.

Jobs that pay enough to support a family but don't require a bachelor's degree now demand the same level of preparation as college. The testing company ACT looked at the math and reading skills required by electricians, construction workers, upholsterers, and plumbers and concluded they match what's necessary to do well in college courses.

The problem is America's students just aren't getting the skills they need to succeed in college or careers. The building trades care a lot about education because they see first hand the results of under-performing schools, and their apprenticeship programs are struggling to find qualified applicants. Just consider:

o Jonathan Mitchell, training director at the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 490 in Concord, New Hampshire, says that about half of applicants fail a required entry test in math and reading.

o Jane Templin, outreach coordinator at the Electrical Training Institute in Los Angeles, says that fewer students are passing the test required to become an apprentice electrician. Out of about 150 who take the test each month, only about a third pass -- down from 40-45 percent 10 years ago.

o Rosane Mesmer at the Ohio Plumbers and Pipe-fitters Local 425 says that most applicants earn only five or six points out of ten on a test of very basic math -- addition, subtraction, and finding length, width, and area.

When we talk about education, we're talking about the skills gap, national competitiveness, and our children's futures. These are things that union members care about, that all Americans do, and it's going to take a real leader to stand up and challenge the status quo on these issues.

If I were moderating the debate tonight, I'd want to ask the Democrats what their plans are to make sure that the high school graduates in New Hampshire, Ohio, and California have the skills they need to fill those high wage jobs in the building trades. I'd also ask them if they were willing to break away from the status quo and orthodoxy of the education establishment by offering thoughtful proposals about extended time and support for learning, performance pay for teachers and raising academic standards and achievement for our students. (To read more about these issues, go to

I'm hoping that tonight MSNBC will ask those provocative questions about the subjects that millions of working men and women need to hear addressed, but I'm not holding my breath. To ask, or answer, questions like this will take a sort of courage and conviction we haven't seen yet in this campaign, and I'm starting to wonder if we ever will.