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Education 2012: Will politicians make campaign promises that matter?

Randall F. Clemens

“Yes, we can,” exclaimed Senator Barack Obama after winning the presidential primary in South Carolina nearly four years ago. The slogan signified hope and change for a country that desperately needed it. By alluding to Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers, it also hinted at a promising new future for the working class and working poor, particularly among Latinos and African Americans. 

Four years later, the national tenor has changed. Obama—with little help from Congress—has been unable to translate rhetoric into practice and, sometime during the last four years, hope has given way to prostrate frustration. The Great Recession has not gone away. Unemployment and poverty have risen. We now have the Tea Party and Occupy movements. Both seem like something more than fads. And, as Republic candidates stump across the nation, President Obama’s two promises—hope and change—have become punching bags. 

What about the state of education over the past four years? Although President Obama and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan have had some successes, the failures have mounted, especially in the last year. Both Race to the Top and Promise Neighborhoods have offered glimpses of innovation; however, budget cuts have threatened both initiatives. Despite asserting more control over education policy than any other administration, Obama has not reauthorized No Child Left Behind. Moreover, incremental reforms like value-added evaluations, national standards, and school choice have dominated policy discussions while foundational issues like the lack of educational funding, link between poverty and education, and need to innovate the pre-K-16 pipeline remain unresolved and under-discussed. Until policymakers address the critical issues, educational inequality will continue to increase.

Politicians are especially vague about educational issues. As Tyack and Cuban point out in Tinkering toward Utopia, the reason has to due with the similarities between the Democratic and Republican Parties. Since everyone agrees that better education is important, there is little political incentive to stray from the status quo. From Clinton to Bush to Obama, education reform has sounded remarkably different but looked remarkably similar. 

Where does that leave education in the coming year? Ron Paul wants to nix the Department of Education. Newt Gingrich wants to replace janitors with students. And, Rick Santorum wants to include creationism in the curriculum. However, aside from a few outliers, the candidates vary little. Mitt Romney, the most likely to win the Republican nomination, is nearly identical to Obama regarding education. 

Accountability ought to be shared. It’s time to ask more of President Obama and the Republican Candidates. If education is the engine that drives economic prosperity and social equality, then it is fair to ask politicians to provide an instruction manual. By now, everyone knows we need 21st century learners and schools to support them. Unfortunately, that sort of talk rarely leads to tangible results like percentage increases in graduation and college-going rates. How will the presidential candidates improve education over the short- and long-term? What concrete steps will they take to provide equitable education for all students? These are the questions to answer and the promises to make.