Campaigns & Elections

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.

Presidential Politics

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 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.”

Congressional Races

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 States

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.”