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Where Has All the Education Gone?

by Thomas Gift & Karen Gift - November 18, 2011

This commentary catalogues the striking absence of education from the 2011 Republican primary debates. In the eight GOP debates so far this year, the term “education” or “educational” has been invoked just 64 times—a number dwarfed by terms like “Reagan” (82 times), “illegal” (109 times), “Obamacare” (125 times), and the number “9” (382 times). Yet despite its absence from the national limelight, the problem of education reform remains as exigent as ever.

We forget it now, but there was a day, not so very long ago, when education once dominated the political limelight. The year was 2000, and he who would be president campaigned on an aggressive platform to overhaul America’s schools through a national system of test-based accountability. Less than two years later, that man—George W. Bush—was president, and standing shoulder-to-shoulder with the late Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-MA) to celebrate his signature legislative achievement: No Child Left Behind.

Love or hate the largest federal intervention into primary and secondary education in U.S. history (and there’s plenty of reason to do both), few at the time disputed the Bush administration’s commitment to broad-based school reform. While conservatives may have debated the effectiveness of NCLB’s implementation—“adequate yearly progress”? “unfunded mandates”? “supplemental educational services”?—they undeniably prioritized the need to reform America’s schools.

“[NCLB] is not just an education law, it’s a civil rights law,” declared Education Secretary Margaret Spellings.

But today, education has been all but relegated to the back-burner by the Republican Party, replaced by squabbling over social security, “Ponzi schemes,” illegal aliens at lawn mowing companies, and a veritable bushel basket of other trivialities. With the exception of sporadic appeals by Rep. Ron Paul to axe the federal Department of Education, and brief nods to federalism or family concerns by nearly everyone else, the GOP candidates have been conspicuously mum on education reform.

In the eight GOP debates so far this year, the term “education” or “educational” has been invoked just 64 times—a number dwarfed by terms like “regulation” (70 times), “kill” (78 times), “Reagan” (82 times), “energy” (107 times), “illegal” (109 times), “Washington” (124 times), “Obamacare” (125 times), “border” (128 times), the number “9” (382 times), and “job” (471 times). In the most recent debate in Rochester, MI, education was mentioned only 11 times—8 of which were in the context of getting Uncle Sam out of education altogether.

The imbalance is even more pronounced among debate moderators, who have asked only four questions directly about K-12 education.

Or make it three. At the first debate in Greenville, SC, Fox News moderator Bret Bair announced “another round of questions on the important topics of jobs, unions and education.” The question on “education”? “Do you equate the teaching of creationism with the teaching of evolution as the basis for what should be taught in our nation’s schools?”

On their campaign websites, only one of the eight major Republican presidential contenders— Herman Cain—even mentions education as a key campaign issue. And the former Pizza Man’s strategy for education is but a labyrinth of clichés (“rewarding those teachers who enrich the lives of their students,” anyone?)

Gone are the “9-1-1” calls for overcoming “the soft bigotry of low expectations.”

In is “9-9-9.”

To be fair, the United States now faces new threats—both domestic and global—that are radically different, and in many ways, more immediately salient to Americans. In the 1990s, we had the luxury of caring about Gary Condit and Tonya Harding. Today, we’re worried about our jobs, our homes, and our 401k’s.

Still, in the urgency of the moment, the slow decay of American education must not be overlooked.

Overall, the United States ranks forty-eighth out of 133 countries in math and science education. On international math tests, the United States is near the bottom of industrialized countries, and in the middle of the pack in science and reading. Only 32% of eighth-grade students are proficient in reading and only 34% in math, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress. Dropout rates in cities like Dallas, Philadelphia, Denver, Los Angeles, and Detroit surpass 50%.

This is at a time when, over the next ten years, nearly half of all new jobs will require education that goes beyond a high school degree. For a country that has long prided itself on offering opportunity for all, it’s a dismal record—and one that desperately needs fixing.

So far, however, we know almost nothing about how the GOP presidential hopefuls would go about reforming America’s broken schools—and, in particular, how they would differ from the current course charted by Barack Obama.

But on November 12, when the Republican candidates gather at Wofford College in Spartansburg, SC for their ninth debate, we’ll have another opportunity to press for answers. To ask Michelle Bachmann what she meant by her claim “[e]ducational reform [was] where I cut my teeth in politics.” To explore Mitt Romney’s equivocal support for President Obama’s Race to the Top. To push Herman McCain beyond the platitudes, and probe the rationale behind Rick Perry’s education budget cuts in Texas.

Let’s bring education back to the debate. We owe it to American’s children—and our future.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: November 18, 2011
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 16609, Date Accessed: 5/19/2022 4:39:22 AM

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About the Author
  • Thomas Gift
    Duke University
    E-mail Author
    Thomas Gift is a doctoral student in political science at Duke University, where he is a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellow studying the politics of education.
  • Karen Gift
    Duke University
    E-mail Author
    Karen Gift is a third year law student at Duke University School of Law.
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