Education in Elections
Education has been an important issue too much of the voting population in the United States since the mid 19th century. Every candidate for president must have a strong stance on public education, or else he or she won’t be elected. Its existence as such an important issue derives from a multitude of factors, namely its importance to voters and the political and financial backing of the powerful lobbies that support it. Unfortunately, the public education system in the US is faltering and in need of reform. But because it is such a complex issue, it is incredibly difficult to fix, making it a nonstarter in the political realm. Perhaps the most interesting thing about education is that the news coverage it receives does not reflect how important most people consider it.
The issue of public education has been around for almost as long as the country. 18th century enlightenment thinkers believed in education to create a more well rounded intellectual population, although this was generally reserved for the wealthy upper class. Thomas Jefferson proposed a bill in the Virginia Legislature in 1779 that would have created a two-track public education system in the commonwealth. Unfortunately Jefferson’s Bill 79 of 1779 was defeated and Virginia did not have a full public school system until the 1851. It wasn’t until the mid 19th century when the explosion of factory jobs in major cities created a necessity for a semi-educated work force that public education really took off. Still, it wasn’t until after the civil war that the federal government really began to get involved. In public education.
Over the next half-century several major education reforms occurred. The first Office of education came to be in 1867. It was originally a part of the department of the interior, but was dissolved in the early 1970s and replaced with the department of Education we know today in 1979. Large land grants were provided by the government at the turn of the 20th century for the purposes of creating universities, marking the first federal support for the endowments of higher education institutions. And in 1944 the G.I. bill, arguably the most well known education bill, was passed to provide cash payments for tuition for WWII vets who were hoping to got to college.
However it wasn’t until the landmark decision in Brown v. Board of Education in 1954 that education really became a hot button issue in American politics. Since then there have been sweeping education reform bills go through congress that have changed the way education operates in the US. Almost all them adapted to President Johnson’s two education reform bills, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, and the Higher Education Act of 1965.
It was really the social upheaval caused by integration in the sixties that fully turned education into the hot button election issue that it is known as today. When the news media began covering the social upheaval surrounding the education reform that started with Brown v. Board, the American public, and in turn the American politicians, all agreed that education reform was necessary.
And while the racial tension and the integration issues have passed in the 58 years since then, the view that education is important has remained. Indeed, multiple national polls showed that education was a primary issue of concern for voters in the 2012 presidential election. Gallup polling showed that, outside of economic issues, education was among the most important issues in the 2012 election, beating out the ongoing war in Afghanistan, national security and gay rights. A poll done by the National Education Association showed that 80% of Americans consider education to be an important issue.
What makes these polling numbers interesting is that news coverage of education is currently almost non-existent. A study done by the Brookings Institution in 2009 found that only 1.4% of all national media coverage that year was related to education. More surprisingly, in 2008, an election year, only 0.7% of news coverage was related to education. And even when education was covered it generally revolved around three topics: school board budget issues, school crime, and outbreaks of the H1N1 virus. Even when education was being covered, it wasn’t actually being covered. So why then, if the news isn’t talking about education, does it remain an important issue?
One very large reason that education remains such an important part of the political conversation, like so many other issues, is money. More specifically, money from labor unions and education lobbies. Two of the ten largest labor unions in the United States are teachers unions. According to the center for public integrity, the American Federation of teachers has a membership of 887,000. Its older sibling, the National Education Association, the largest labor union in the nation, dwarfs its sibling with a membership of 3.2 million people. According to OpenSecrets.org the two organizations have combined to spend $87,980,856 in political contributions in the last 13 years, with the vast majority going to democratic candidates. Candidates who receive such massive political support from these organizations in turn speak about education and education reform. This forces their opponents to make education a chief issue, because in politics you can never let your opponent have a clear advantage on an issue.
This interest in education from politicians, combined with the naturally occurring interest in the subject from the millions of parents, grandparents, and young voters who still have plans on receiving higher education, creates a situation in which education becomes a key issue. But the same polling numbers from Gallup that suggest that education is an important issue to voters, also suggests that it isn’t an issue that will ultimately decide their vote.
The report from the Brookings Institution theorizes that this is again related to news coverage. It can never be overstated how complicated the issue of education reform is. There are no simple fixes. Therefore creating an education plan that is very effective is also complicated, and so is the debate in the political arena around the eventual plan. Because the news doesn’t cover the complex and important problems that face the education system, it is increasingly challenging to find information to help explain what a particular candidate’s education plan really is. And when the voters don’t understand the aspects of a candidate’s proposal, it is incredibly unlikely that they will support or oppose a candidate based on their plan.
This pattern creates a situation in which education reform becomes a “non-starter” issue for elected officials. Because the primary goal of a politician is to get elected and remain in office, they are less likely to make extreme steps on issues that they don’t believe affect the outcome of an election greatly. In essence, if there is no guarantee that a large scale, complex education reform bill will succeed, and a great failure would do a lot of harm to their political strength, they won’t propose one. Better to do little and have nothing change than to do a lot and fail. Of course, the opposite has the same effect. If a candidate promises education reform (which as previously explained he or she has to do) and then does nothing, they are risking losing the support they had from whoever supported their education policies in the first place.
Strangely enough, it could be argued that this exact existence of education as a stagnant issue is what leads to it currently being underreported by the news. With shrinking budgets in newsrooms, and grand education reform unlikely, reporters on the education beat are being cut and not being replaced. This leads to an uninformed electorate in regards to the complex issue of education. Meanwhile the money is still rolling in from the education lobby, which requires the candidates to make education reform a major part of their campaign platform, which people want because they feel that it is socially important to them, but they aren’t going to vote on the issue of education because they don’t understand it. And the cycle repeats.
This is not to say that education is a false issue, or a fake issue. Everyone who comments on the subject agrees on two points. The education of our youth is vital to the future advancement of our nation, and the education system needs to be improved. The problem arises in that it is complex enough that a quick fix is impossible and no one is willing to risk the political capital to fix it the whole way. Education will continue to be an important issue because it is an important issue. Weather or not news coverage of it increases remains to be seen. The writers of the report filed by the Brookings Institution believe that news coverage from national news organizations will not increase greatly, but the advancement of news blogs, specifically single-issue news blogs, could increase awareness about the complex issues at hand by providing clean and competent coverage of education issues.