Election 2008: Issues

Why Education Isn't a Hot Topic in Election 2008

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The "Ed in '08" campaign got $60 million to try to make education a prominent issue in the race for the White House. Former Colorado Gov. Roy Romer, the chairman of the nonprofit in charge of the project, talks with Ari Shapiro about why the topic hasn't been high on the candidates' radar.

ARI SHAPIRO, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Ari Shapiro.

Ed in '08 is an election year campaign - not for a candidate named Edward, but for education reform. This week, we conclude our month-long look at education in America.

The nonprofit group Strong American Schools got $60 million in foundation grants to make education a priority in the 2008 presidential race. They created the Ed in '08 campaign and rolled out a YouTube video.

(Soundbite of video)

Unidentified Child: Education.

SHAPIRO: The soundtrack plays over a series of depressing statistics about education in America, about graduation rates and the number of countries that provide better educations than the U.S. Ed in '08 wanted to make these issues a priority in the 2008 presidential race.

Former Colorado Governor Roy Romer chairs the group. And Governor Romer, is it just me, or has this campaign more or less failed to get education on the front burner in the presidential race so far?

Former Governor ROY ROMER (Colorado): We've made a lot of progress but education is one of the top three issues, about third in line, on polls. But the conversation between candidates, no, it's not been the top issue.

SHAPIRO: When you say on polls, do you mean voters say they are interested in education...

Gov. ROMER: That's right.

SHAPIRO: ...in the top three? Then why aren't candidates talking about it?

Gov. ROMER: I think the war, the economy has dominated the press. And it's difficult for federal candidates, candidates for president, to know exactly how to talk about education because this country has distributed the responsibility for education to states and local districts. But this campaign is increasingly going to focus on education because of the economy.

If you look at the way out of the economy for an individual family or for the nation, it's got to be to increase skills and knowledge. And if we're going to compete with the world, and we're in a global competition, we've got to get smarter, we've got to get more skilled.

Now, let me just say, there are nations after nation that have exceeded us in the last 20 years. Poland, South Korea, Singapore, Finland, Canada - they all do a better job with K-12 education than the United States.

SHAPIRO: This is according to a study that UNICEF did.

Gov. ROMER: This is a study called the PISA study. We used to be at the top of the herd, and right now we're back in the pack. If we had the Olympics of math, we wouldn't be on the podium of 1-2-3, we would be 25th in line.

SHAPIRO: The YouTube video that you guys created has about 3,000 comments. We've taken some of those comments and asked people to record them, and I'd like to play them for you and get your reaction.

Gov. ROMER: Fine.

Unidentified Woman #2: I think that one of the major contributing factors is that kids don't get enough support and encouragement from their parents. Think about it: Divorce is rampant in the States. So, not only do kids get half the parental attention, they get less. Mom comes home from work, possibly from two jobs, she's tired and doesn't have the time or energy to help with her kids' homework or to remind them how important it is to do well in school.

Unidentified Man #1: I have lived in Finland, and I can tell you that the reason they do so well is the parental support that each student receives. In the USA, children with parents that care do very well. Think: Who allows the student to drop out?

Unidentified Man #2: I find it quite amusing that they always use high-school dropout rates as a benchmark for everything yet fail to consider that colleges and universities from the United States are still the powerhouse of the world's research and development.

Unidentified Woman #3: Mass media pop culture doesn't help. It puts stupidity and recklessness on a pedestal. While the media moguls have youth cheering on drooling simpletons, they're getting rich and sending their kids to private schools, then Harvard and Princeton. Works well for them.

Unidentified Woman #4: I'm glad to be Canadian.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SHAPIRO: That didn't sound very Canadian.

Gov. ROMER: Well, listen, there's a lot of stuff packed into those comments. But let me comment: first, parental attention, they're dead right. These kids are dead right. If you go to the Far East, you'll find kids going to school on Saturday. Why? Because the parents are insisting that they add additional tutoring to the five-day week. There is a cultural focus upon education in many countries that we don't have here. That's one thing.

Secondly, for young children, those who are just entering school, that parental conversation around the dinner table - reading them a story, sitting in the parent's lap - that begins to build vocabulary and comprehension, and it's very critical.

Let me talk about the graduate level. You know, they said, well, yes, but we still have great universities. We do have great universities, but let's look at who attends. Half of the graduate students are foreign students. It used to be that they would get great education and stay in this country and help our economy grow. Not now. They go back to their own countries.

SHAPIRO: Are teachers' unions a factor? Many teachers' unions organizations have given millions of dollars in some cases, in particular to Democratic candidates. And those unions sometimes resist proposals for substantial change that would, for example, weed out some of the lower- performing teachers.

Gov. ROMER: Teachers are the backbone of education. They are the key. Quality teaching is the most important factor of education. Unions generally are helpful, but there are times in which unions are not helpful. We need to attract more talent into education, and we need to have a better way of sorting out those that are not successful and finding other jobs for them.

SHAPIRO: But does the fact that Democratic candidates get so much money from unions in some way prevent those candidates from proposing some of the really dramatic overhauls that they might otherwise be talking about?

Gov. ROMER: It could prevent it if you didn't have a strong candidate. But on the whole, unions are very helpful in moving the agenda of education forward.

SHAPIRO: So, your forecast in the next six months for the role that education will play in the election.

Gov. ROMER: Here's my forecast: The economy is going to be the most important issue other than the war. And when you look deeply into how you solve the problems of the economy for the family or for the nation, they're going to realize they've got to get more skill and more knowledge to compete in the world.

And I believe, therefore, candidates and the public are going to demand we've got to have some leadership from all of you about what you're going to do about education.

SHAPIRO: Roy Romer is former governor of Colorado, former superintendent of the L.A. school system, and current chairman of the Ed in '08 campaign. Thanks a lot for being here.

Gov. ROMER: Thank you, Ari.

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