Thomas Jefferson, among others, is credited by historians with equating an educated populace with one that was prepared to participate and vote in a democracy. “Every government degenerates when trusted to the rulers of the people alone,” he once wrote. “The people themselves are its only safe depositories. And to render them safe, their minds must be improved to a certain degree.”
So what role does the issue of education itself play in elections, from the White House to the local school board? The materials gathered in this section of Story Starters tackle this question.
For the past quarter century, presidents have used the bully pulpit of the White House to address education. Presidential attention to the issue grew under George H.W. Bush, the first to declare himself “the education president”; the two-term tenure of Bill Clinton, who advanced the standards and accountability movement and promoted numerous education initiatives such as school uniforms; and George W. Bush, who brought Republicans and Democrats in Congress together behind a sweeping expansion of federal authority over education in the No Child Left Behind Act. President Barack Obama has also actively engaged his administration in education reform via his Race to the Top initiative, emphasis on teacher effectiveness, college-ready standards, and charter schools, among other policy areas.
As the federal role in education has grown over the past half century, the topic has steadily grown more prominent as a campaign issue in presidential elections. For Jimmy Carter in 1976, that meant a promise to the teachers’ unions to establish a federal department of education, a pledge he turned lukewarm about while in office but ultimately fulfilled. For Ronald Reagan, battles revolved around dismantling the new federal department, attempts to enact private school vouchers, and rhetoric around school prayer. Paradoxically, for a president who sought to limit the growing federal role, Reagan helped usher in an era of greater standards and accountability with the commission that issued the report “A Nation at Risk,” which ultimately led to an even stronger federal role.
Yet from 1960 to 1984, education failed to make its way into the forefront of presidential debates, notes Jeffrey Henig, a professor at Teachers College, Columbia University. In a recent paper, Henig tracks the emphasis that presidents and other elected officials have placed on education over the past half century. He finds that education didn’t appear in the top 10 issues of concern to U.S. voters until 1988, when it ranked eighth; four years later, it had moved up to fifth.
In 2008, education was far from the most prominent presidential election issue, but Barack Obama and John McCain did offer competing visions. Obama emphasized proposals to increase early childhood education, recruit new teachers, and add new tax credits for college tuition. McCain stressed school choice, in the form of expanded opportunities for charter schools.
Brief dustups over relatively minor issues have sometimes pushed the candidates’ education platforms into the foreground. In 1988, George H.W. Bush criticized Democrat Michael Dukakis over his veto of a Massachusetts bill that would have required teachers to lead the Pledge of Allegiance. In 2008, McCain launched an attack ad against Obama claiming that the Democrat had supported comprehensive sex education for kindergartners as an Illinois lawmaker. The claim was inaccurate, independent analysts said, and the controversy quickly faded.
As the 2012 presidential election season neared, the journal Education Next and Harvard University’s Program on Education Policy and Governance surveyed Americans about the politics of education. The survey found that with the exception of the issues of school spending and teacher tenure, “the divisions between Democrats and Republicans on education policy matters are quite minor.”
“A clear plurality, even a majority, of the American public support a wide range of policy innovations ranging from charter schools and tax credits to tougher standards, accountability measures, and merit pay for teachers,” Education Next said. But, it went on, “pluralities and bare majorities are often not enough to alter public policy in a country where power is divided between two highly competitive and increasingly polarized political parties. If Republicans and Democrats disagree strongly on the options for school reform, changes are unlikely.”
While education usually gets at least some attention in presidential campaigns, it tends to get less attention in federal legislative races, even though members of Congress play an important role in federal education policy.
At a forum on education and politics in early 2012 sponsored by the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, Katherine Haley, an aide to Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-Ohio), noted that the makeup of the House of Representatives has changed significantly since 2001, when the No Child Left Behind Act was passed. The addition of many tea party Republicans after the 2010 elections make the landscape for federal education policy difficult to predict, she said.
In a paper for an earlier American Enterprise Institute (AEI) forum, Charles Barone of Democrats for Education Reform and Elizabeth DeBray of the University of Georgia College of Education agree that many new Republicans want to see a smaller federal role in education. And greater partisanship and more cohesive party control on divisive issues mean it will be more difficult to win bipartisan agreement on federal education policy than in earlier eras.
“Partisanship and party polarization seem now to be at an all-time high,” the authors write. “This does not seem to bode well for a smooth or successful ESEA reauthorization,” they added, referring to the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the current version of which is NCLB.
Still, says Haley, “Please don’t write off Congress” in the near term.
The growth of the federal role in education sometimes obscures the fact that schooling in America is primarily a state function. Governors, state legislatures, state boards of education and chief state school officers—such as commissioners or secretaries of education—all exert significant power and influence over how schools in a given state are organized and what they teach.
Governors, in particular, have their own bully pulpits at the state level, in addition to budget and policy agendas that almost always have significance for schools. And many analysts see the pendulum of influence over education policy swinging back from the federal government to the states, and their governors. “Governors have the biggest piece of the money, and they have stepped up their game” over the past three years, Peter Cunningham, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s chief spokesman, said at the AEI forum. “Governors are going to be in the driver’s seat, and that’s the way it should be.”
State lawmakers, especially those on education and budget committees, also play an influential role, of course. Post-election shifts in which party holds the reins of legislative power can trigger policy changes felt in districts and schools.
As for state boards of education, a mix of models complicates the picture. The National Association of State Boards of Education defines four main models. In the first, the governor appoints the state board, and the board selects the chief state school officer. This covers 12 states. In the second, the state board is elected and then appoints the chief state school officer; that model prevails in eight states. In the third, in place in 11 states, the governor appoints the state board, but there is an independently elected chief. And finally, in nine states, the governor appoints the state board and the chief.
Those models cover 40 states. There is a mix of other arrangements in the remaining 10 states, such as a blend of elected and appointed state board members, or a state board appointed by the legislature.
A total of 14 chief state school officers are popularly elected. But in a few of those states, a separate “education secretary” or some similar officer serves on the governor’s cabinet.
For the education reporter, the state board and the state department of education are often under-covered sources for news about decisions that are felt in the classroom.
The Local Level
The most fundamental political unit for public education governance in the United States is the school board, where thousands of local citizen-legislators oversee nearly 14,000 school districts that employ more than six million teachers and other workers and serve more than 52 million children.
Nearly 95 percent of board members are elected, usually in nonpartisan races, according to the National School Boards Association. President Bill Clinton said once said that when he left office, he might run for his local school board, something he hasn’t followed through on since leaving the White House.
Three out of four school board members spent less than $1,000 on their elections, and nearly half reported that their elections were easy, an NSBA report said. Well more than half receive no salary, but about 15 percent are paid at least $5,000 per year. The most significant decision for virtually every board is the hiring of the professional school superintendent to carry out district educational policies. Other traditional functions include having the final say on employment, real estate, and other business matters of the school district. One area where boards have played a lesser role is in adopting policies that deal with student achievement. The NSBA reports, however, that that has changed in the No Child Left Behind era, as the demands of school accountability have forced local board members to confront such issues more frequently.
For many years now, the school boards group and other advocates for local governance have been on the defensive. That’s because many critics have zeroed in on school boards as a 19th Century anachronism.
“We need to steel ourselves to put this dysfunctional arrangement out of its misery and move on to something that will work for children,” the right-leaning education scholar Chester E. Finn Jr. has written. “In far too many places, today’s school boards consist of an unwholesome mix of aspiring politicians, teacher union puppets, individuals with some cause or scheme they yearn to inflict on everyone’s kids, and ex-employees of the system with scores to settle.”
Political scientist William G. Howell of the University of Chicago notes three trends that have contributed to the decline of school boards. One was the movement toward mayoral control of schools in large cities such as Boston, Chicago, and New York City, where the powers of elected boards were either eliminated or sharply curtailed. Second, the school choice movement—in the form of charter schools, private school vouchers, and choice options both within and across district lines—has shifted power from elected boards to parents. And third, he notes, the standards and accountability movements have meant that the purposes of education have increasingly been defined from “on high.”
But there are some positive notes for the elected school board. Howell has found that when turnout is high, voters have been more likely to hold incumbent board members responsible for the test-score performance of schools. Frederick M. Hess, an education analyst with the American Enterprise Institute, notes that elected school boards provide transparency in decision-making. And despite widespread complaints about board dysfunction and micromanagement, nearly nine out of 10 school superintendents describe their relationships with their boards as mostly cooperative, Hess says.
The nation’s schools can hardly be described as removed from politics, but they do represent common ground to the degree that people from all political backgrounds agree on their need to succeed.
“For Americans, education isn’t an issue, it’s a value,” David Winston, a pollster participating in the AEI forum said. “The key for reformers is to explain the desired outcome to voters.” — Mark Walsh, June 2012
Highlighted journalism and reports for this topic
Republicans, liberals, Hollywood notables and global corporate executives are among those who gave to the Coalition for School Reform. (The Los Angeles Times)Read More »
Outside groups and labor unions poured $5 million into local school-board races here, but voters appeared to stick with the status quo, re-electing two incumbents and leaving both sides claiming victory on Wednesday. (The Wall Street Journal)Read More »
Michelle Rhee put the nation's education establishment on alert two years ago when she announced she would form an advocacy group focused on thwarting the power of teachers unions in state and local politics. (Sacraamento Bee)Read More »
Reform supporters come from both parties, and tend to push for charter schools and grading teachers in accordance with their students' standardized test scores. In some states, like Connecticut, South Dakota and Idaho, voters dealt the movement a significant blow, pushing back controversial measures that would have ended an elected school board, abolished teacher tenure and instituted merit pay. On the other side of the issue, a major charter school initiative in Georgia made it through, and the results for another similar measure in Washington were inconclusive as of Tuesday night, though it led in the polls as of Wednesday morning. (The Huffington Post)Read More »
Teachers unions won several big victories in both red and blue states Tuesday, overturning laws that would have eliminated tenure in Idaho and South Dakota, defeating a threat to union political work in California, and ousting a state schools chief in Indiana who sought to fundamentally remake public education. (Reuters)Read More »
The 20-year classroom veteran says he's grateful to Mr. Obama for pouring billions of dollars into saving teachers' jobs and investing in early-childhood education. And he's very worried about GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney's plan to turn more than $25 billion in federal education funding for special education and disadvantaged children over to parents, who could then spend the money at any school they choose, including a private school. That could ultimately undermine the public system, Mr. White said. (Ed Week)Read More »
On the issue his campaign has been most silent on — the fate of the waivers the U.S. Department of Education and Secretary Arne Duncan have granted so far from NCLB—Handy didn't outright say Romney would get rid of them. But he broadly hinted at it.
The waivers are "not about flexibility. They're very prescriptive. We think they have led to a very unfortunate result: ... many of these states are setting different accountability standards for different constituencies of children," said Handy, a former chairman of the Florida State Board of Education. "I think it's wrong." What he's referring to—different school performance standards for different groups of kids—is becoming a big policy issue in many states, and a messaging problem for the Obama administration. (Ed Week)Read More »
Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, in his most detailed comments about education spending yet, pledged during Wednesday night's debate with President Barack Obama in Denver that he would not cut federal education funding if elected—even as he made the case that he's the best choice to rein in a mounting deficit. (Ed Week)Read More »
If Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney wins the November election, his ascension could endanger—or dismantle—key Obama administration education initiatives and lead to a slimmed-down and less activist U.S. Department of Education. (Ed Week)Read More »
Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney said Tuesday that he thinks teachers unions should be banned from making political contributions because union leaders often negotiate contracts with Democratic politicians they’ve helped elect, a situation he called “an extraordinary conflict of interest.” (Washington Post)Read More »
In Illinois, the top two recipients of political contributions from the Illinois Education Association through June 30 were Republicans, including a State House candidate who has Tea Party support and advocates lower taxes and smaller government. (The New York Times)Read More »
EWA compiles articles from multiple sources to help contextualize the NBC Education Nation interviews with the presidential candidates Barack Obama and Mitt Romney. (Education Writers Association/NBC)Read More »
Some of the education-related ballot items, like those in Arizona and California, are part of the perennial effort to obtain more financial support for schools and seek to help K-12 school systems recover in part from the Great Recession and subsequent economic stagnation.Read More »
But other proposals—such as ones in Idaho and South Dakota—represent resistance from teachers' unions and other groups to changes they view as antagonistic to public education, such as reduced collective bargaining rights or a bigger emphasis on standardized testing. (Ed Week)
But at the state and local levels, Democrats' views on vouchers are more diverse and nuanced than what is suggested by the party's national platform, which makes no mention of private school choice, or by the policies of the Obama administration, which has consistently opposed providing public money for private school costs.
Some Democrats see vouchers as offering an escape hatch for students who would otherwise be forced to stay in academically struggling public schools. Others say publicly funded private school scholarships provide opportunities for students to obtain a religious education they otherwise could not afford. (Education Week)Read More »
During the recently concluded presidential nominating conventions, President Barack Obama and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney offered stark choices on K-12 policy while downplaying areas of agreement between their two parties—and the tensions within each party on education issues. (Ed Week)Read More »
But while teachers' union chiefs opine on the importance of social justice, tolerance, workers' rights and abortion rights, similar scrutiny shows that in recent years, national and local affiliates of the National Education Association -- the nation's largest teachers' union -- have endorsed candidates who disagree on all those counts. Since 1989, five percent of campaign contributions by the NEA have gone to Republicans, according to public records. (The Huffington Post)Read More »
The apologetic tone was not an emotional, spur-of-the-moment outburst, even if Weingarten is given to raising her voice and slapping her hand on her leg to emphasize a point. She appeared to recognize that if teachers' unions are going to weather another round of criticism, brought on by a new Hollywood film, "Won't Back Down," in which the union is the bad guy, they will have to adopt a strategy that starts with conciliation. (The Huffington Post)Read More »
The party platform promotes the reform of the federal student loan program, the increased funding to Pell Grants and the new income based repayment option for federal loans. It's a stark contrast to the Republican platform, which called for a roll back of the student loan reform to funnel money back through private banks. (The Huffington Post)Read More »
College affordability, global competitiveness, and Republican threats to education spending were consistent themes for governors and other high-profile speakers on Tuesday's first night of the Democratic National Convention.
"You can't be pro-business unless you're pro-education," declared San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro, who gave the keynote speech, in drawing a sharp and critical contrast between President Barack Obama and GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney on support for schools. (Education Week)Read More »
Teachers unions have been the Democratic Party's foot soldiers for more than half a century, providing not only generous financial backing but an army of volunteers in return for support of their entrenched power in the nation's public schools.
But this relationship is fraying, and the deterioration was evident Monday as Democrats gathered here for their national convention.Read More »
WASHINGTON – President Obama would make tax credits for college expenses permanent and expand Pell grants for students from lower-earning families. The Republican team of Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan would emphasize the need to curb rising tuitions and federal education spending that are burdening families and the government. (USA Today)Read More »
President Obama has used back-to-school season to make the case that his education funding and policy initiatives are saving teachers’ jobs, turning around failing public schools, and helping cash-strapped college students. Mitt Romney counters that Mr. Obama has spent too much, and he advocates more school choice and private-sector involvement.
Here is a look at how the two differ on the issue of education.Read More »
With the Republican National Convention about to kick off, it's officially time to start speculating about who could be presumptive GOP Mitt Romney's education secretary if he wins the presidential election. After all, way back in 2008 (Aug. 8, to be exact), Politics K-12 guessed that then-Chicago schools chief Arne Duncan could be then-Democratic contender Barack Obama's pick on Aug. 8. So we're actually late to the dance this year. This time, there's not a lot of agreement among the Republicans that I polled. (Education Week)Read More »
Among the largest higher-education items targeted for cuts in Mr. Ryan's budget proposals are the federal student-aid programs. He has called for ending the in-school interest subsidy on undergraduate Stafford loans and tightening the eligibility requirements for the Pell Grant program. He would completely cut off Pell eligibility for students attending college less than half-time. (The Chronicle of Higher Education)Read More »
What do the American Ireland Fund, the Rev. Al Sharpton and the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network have in common? All have received some of the more than $330 million that America's two largest teachers unions spent in the past five years on outside causes, political campaigns, lobbying and issue education.
The contributions—totaling more than $200 million from the National Education Association and more than $130 million from the American Federation of Teachers—were disclosed in annual reports that unions file with the Labor Department detailing their spending on political activities and advocacy work, as well as separate political-action-committee filings. (The Wall Street Journal)
But as the once-in-a-decade redrawing of school board districts nears its end, some Los Angeles Unified School District officials and others close to the process see the mayor's guiding hand in the proposed lines. The map turned over to the City Council last week is seen as a move to bolster political strength on the school board for Villaraigosa and his allies. (Los Angeles Times)Read More »
Few people close to Romney's campaign or with experience dealing with him on higher education issues in the past were willing to speak about him publicly. Several Romney education advisers, past and present, did not respond to repeated interview requests from Inside Higher Ed, or declined to comment on the candidate's record and ideas on higher education. Nor did several people affiliated with private colleges in Massachusetts and the state's university system during his time as governor. So the education policies and attitudes of a potential Romney administration remain a mystery. (Inside Higher Ed)
EWA 2012 National Reporting Contest winner. Crumbling school buildings can impede academic achievement, but what happens when the public votes down bond measures to upgrade the infrastructure? This series of articles looks at the impasse between school boards and the voters, and cost-saving tricks to fine tune the walls of public instruction. (The Journal News)Read More »
A look at the education platforms of the candidates for the 2012 Republican Presidential nomination. (Education Week)Read More »
A lighthearted look at the moments in which education took center stage in the 2008 presidential campaign, with links to the original articles. (Education Week)Read More »
A look at the progress and prospects for No Child Left Behind as President George W. Bush prepared to leave office. (Education Week)Read More »
The absence of education as an issue in the 2008 Congressional elections. (Education Week)Read More »
The two candidates launch television attack ads focused on education initiatives. (Education Week)Read More »
A look at the Pledge of Allegiance as an issue in political campaigns. (Education Week)Read More »
SourcesClick to View (opens in new tab)
Reports & Data
Notable research on this topic
When Obama ran for president the first time, urban poverty was a major policy focus for his campaign. Senator Obama gave speeches on the issue, his campaign Web site had a dedicated poverty section with a variety of policy proposals, and in his platform, he committed his administration to “eradicating poverty,” pledging that “working together, we can cut poverty in half within 10 years.” But the official poverty rate has continued to rise under Obama.Read More »
This site offers quick background information on the 12 races for state governor in 2012 (along with the races for executive office in two U.S. territories). (National Governors Association)Read More »
As part of Don’t Forget Ed, a campaign to make education a key issue in the 2012 election cycle, the College Board commissioned this survey of residents of nine swing states. Among its key findings is the assertion that “Education is a top-tier issue for voters in the 2012 elections for president and Congress, even if it does not always get top-tier attention from candidates.”Read More »
For this 2010 report, researchers surveyed 2,800 people—which included public school teachers and people who live in neighborhoods with more than one charter school. The survey found that Democrats and republicans mostly agreed on matters of education reform. (Education Next)Read More »
This report concludes that the models for school boards is outdated and inefficient.Read More »
This report offers an in-depth look at the composition of the nation’s 14,000 school boards, including the finding that “school board members, especially those in large districts, are more representative of the communities they serve than state legislatures and members of Congress.” (National School Boards Association, Iowa School Boards Association, and the Thomas B. Fordham Institute)Read More »
Carrots, Sticks, and the Bully Pulpit: Lessons From a Half-Century of Federal Efforts to Improve America’s Schools2011
Book edited by Frederick M. Hess and Andrew P. Kelly. (Harvard Education Press)Read More »
This study looks at four Michigan cities to examine whether consolidating school board elections with overall municipal elections results in school boards that are more representative of their communities. “These analyses indicate that consolidating elections may lead to increased voter turnout and to changes in the composition of the voting population.” (Educational Policy)Read More »
This study examines governor turnover in Florida, New York, and Texas to determine the impact elections could have on a state’s schools. The author identifies “several national and state-level forces-the economy, state constitutional constraints, an emerging elite ideological consensus, and the necessity to drive toward the conservative middle-that have created conditions in which partisan gubernatorial control matters less than previous research suggests.” (Educational Policy)Read More »
Five Questions to Ask
- Were my state’s members of Congress in office when the No Child Left Behind Act was enacted? How did they vote on it? What have they said about federal accountability issues since then? As for newer members and challengers, what do they think the federal role in education policy should be?
- What did my governor say about education in his or her last “state of the state” address or budget document? How does that compare with what that governor promised as a candidate? What does the governor believe should be the role of the federal government?
- How is my state board of education organized? If members are elected, how much attention does the state electorate pay to such races?
- Are local school board elections held on the same days as federal primaries or general elections? How active is the board in setting education policies, as opposed to other school district issues?
- How influential in state and local board elections, as well as policy matters, are teachers’ unions, associations for school boards and administrators, and parent advocacy groups?
The American Enterprise Institute is a right-leaning think tank with frequent reports and discussions on federal education policy.
The Council of Chief State School Officers is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization for public officials who work in education. The organization offers a forum for its members to reach consensus on various topics and advocates on their behalf at the federal level.
Democrats for Education Reform is a centrist policy group.
The National Association of State Boards of Education “works to strengthen state leadership in educational policymaking, promote excellence in the education of all students, advocate equality of access to educational opportunity, and assure continued citizen support for public education.” The organization is a nonprofit founded in 1958.
The National Governors Association is a bipartisan organization that enables its members to share best practices and offers them a collective voice in shaping national policy.
The National School Boards Association is a nonprofit organization that works with federal agencies and other national associations to influence education policy as it pertains to school boards.
The Thomas B. Fordham Institute is another right-leaning think tank, more focused on education policy.
President Obama Addresses Education Nation Summit -- Interview, Sept. 25, 2012 (NBC News)
Mitt Romney Attends Education Nation Summit -- Interview, Sept. 25, 2012 (NBC News)
Education 2012: What the Election Year Will Mean for Education Policy -- Panel discussion, Feb. 1, 2012 (American Enterprise Institute)
Suggest a Change
If you'd like to suggest an addition or change to this section, send an email to EWA Project Director Kenneth Terrell.