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 Topics section 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 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
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
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
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
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
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
“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
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
“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.”