By Steve Gunn
NEW YORK – We can usually count on public opinion polls to drive the agenda of presidential elections. If large segments of potential voters are concerned about a particular issue, the two major party nominees will usually take up their cause.
A recent poll indicated that 67 percent of registered voters in crucial swing states consider public education an “extremely important” issue in this year’s election.
As well they should, considering the alarming number of failing schools in urban communities, the huge number of teacher layoffs, increasing dropout rates, and test scores that pale in comparison to those of students from other nations.
But as columnist Andrew Rotherham points out in a recent edition of Time, neither President Barack Obama nor former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney are responding to that public concern. Based on the amount of time they spend addressing education on the campaign trail, you would never know it was a national issue.
The problem is that both have natural constituencies within their parties that don’t want them to address education, for various reasons. And both seem prepared to go out of their way to please those constituencies.
We shouldn’t let them get away with it. Education reform is too important for the potential leaders of our nation to ignore.
Republicans and Democrats across the nation are beginning to understand that Big Labor is a huge problem for K-12 education, and they should demand that the candidates check in on this issue.
No press conference should pass without a question about education and the role of teachers unions, particularly in the many states where reform is a very hot issue. No public question-and-answer session should pass without similar queries from citizens.
Perhaps then the candidates will acknowledge one of the great issues of our time. And both will come to realize there’s a lot to be gained politically by embracing an issue that is close to the hearts of 67 percent of voters.
Romney would be wise to embrace reform-minded governors
When it comes to advocating for education reform, one might expect Romney to have the inside track. His party has a traditional disdain for teachers unions, and most Republicans favor things like tenure reform, collective bargaining restraint, the end to seniority-based layoffs, and other changes that lessen the influence of Big Labor in education.
And Romney was apparently an activist governor when it came to education, fighting for charter schools and tougher academic standards.
But on the campaign trail he often chokes on the issue. A good example was last fall in Ohio, where residents were preparing to vote on a statewide referendum on SB 5, the ambitious Republican plan to curb the power of public sector unions and save money for schools and local governments.
When first asked about the referendum, Romney said it was a state issue and declined to comment. He later backtracked and said he supported Gov. John Kasich’s reforms. SB 5 went down to an ugly defeat at the polls.
One of Romney’s problems is that many Republicans tend to be dedicated federalists who believe in separation of powers. To that end, they believe education is a local and state issue. Many favor the abolishment of the U.S. Department of Education. And they certainly don’t believe the President of the United States should spend his or her time on issues that don’t concern Washington, D.C.
As Rotherham wrote in his column, “Romney talks a good game about national problems but is unable to propose actually using national policies or strategies to help solve them.”
But Romney could still promote education reform without making it a federal issue. As he tours the nation he could pledge moral support for the gutsy reformers at the state and local level who have gone toe-to-toe with the unions and education establishment.
He could tip his hat to bold Republicans reformers like Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey, Gov. Mitch Daniels of Indiana, Gov. Rick Snyder of Michigan, Gov. Butch Otter of Idaho, and even the embattled Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin (if he manages to survive the June recall election).
He could even cross the aisle and sing the praises of Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, the former Obama chief of staff who is battling the radical Chicago Teachers Union on behalf of underserved students.
We wonder how Rahm, the most passionate of Democrats, would respond to a pat on the back from Romney? Even more fun is to imagine the reaction of the CTU.
That kind of support from a major party presidential candidate could lend much-needed credibility to the reform movement and the elected officials leading the fight. Meanwhile, Romney could benefit by identifying himself with strong leaders who attack persistent problems with no-nonsense legislation.
Some would say that’s the type of president America needs right now.
In short, a general embrace of the education reform movement, even while insisting that change must originate locally, would help Romney a great deal with the 67 percent.
Obama would look strong by standing up to unions
For a Democrat whose party traditionally defends teachers unions, Obama has a fairly decent record on education reform.
His “Race to the Top” initiative convinced lawmakers in many states to pass groundbreaking reforms to qualify for a shot at billions of federal education dollars. He also backed the school superintendent of Central Falls, Rhode Island, when she tried to fire the entire teaching staff after the union refused to provide more student instruction time without a big raise.
But Obama caved to the teachers unions by signing a $10 billion “edujobs” bill that did little more than help thousands of teachers avoid layoffs for one more year, and kept their dues money flowing to union headquarters one more year.
He also provided the unions with a soft landing by making many reforms mandated by “Race to the Top” dependent on union approval. Unions in several states refused to sign on, killing chances of their schools receiving federal money.
Obama still has the unbridled loyalty of union leaders, despite their annoyance with his fondness for reform and their hatred for Education Secretary Arne Duncan. And Obama is going to need the unions if he hopes to get re-elected.
So common sense would suggest that Obama should continue to ignore education reform, or risk having a lot of union teachers sit on the election sidelines. But Rotherham thinks by doing so, the President is ignoring an opportunity to address a fundamental problem.
“So while the President often talks about economic fairness and obstacles to the American dream … he can’t talk forthrightly about one of the major barriers to achieving that dream: lousy public schools that doom too many kids to low-income jobs or unemployment,” Rotherham wrote.
We believe the public would have more respect for the President if he called the unions’ bluff. And we think he could do it without burning his union base.
The President knows union leaders would rather walk off a cliff than help a Republican win the White House. Given that knowledge, he would look very strong if he stared down union leaders and told them they need to do more to accommodate necessary academic reforms, and be more willing to make contract concessions to help schools save money.
The union leaders would cringe, but they wouldn’t abandon their president. And Obama might come out looking like Superman to the 67 percent who care about education.