By Nanette Light
Scripps Howard Foundation Wire
WASHINGTON - It's a talking battle, and education is losing.
Presidential candidates, focused on the economy and foreign policy, haven't emphasized the topic experts say is vital to ensuring the United State's economic reign.
According to a USA Today/Gallup poll, education was the third-most important issues to voters, behind the economy and Iraq. The poll, conducted Feb. 8 to 10, surveyed 1,016 adults and has a margin of error of plus or minus three percentage points.
Reg Weaver, president of the National Education Association, said his frustration with the candidates' lack of focus on education caused him to write to all four candidates saying the NEA, the country's largest teachers union, with 3.2 million members, would not endorse a candidate this year.
At the NEA's annual meeting in July, when former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney was still in the race, candidates were invited to discuss their proposals for No Child Left Behind and a 21st century education. Mike Huckabee, former governor of Arkansas, was the only Republican candidate to attend, accompanied by a crowd of Democrats, including Sens. Barack Obama, D-Ill., and Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y.
"I'm astonished there aren't more Republican candidates here," Huckabee told the teachers. "Do they not think education is important, or are they just afraid of the NEA? I don't know."
Education came up at the end of the Aug. 19 Democratic debate. George Stephanopoulos, ABC News correspondent and debate moderator, noted the issue had not been discussed in the debates so far.
Obama mentioned the betrayal Iowa teachers feel from No Child Left Behind's lack of funding and assessments. He said the law, which made federal funding for schools dependent on mandatory tests, shouldn't be reauthorized without fundamental changes that go beyond standardized tests.
Clinton said she supports incentives to pay for school performance and is trying to "change the culture within schools." She said schools haven't changed in the last 50 years and need to adopt new technology.
In the Aug. 5 Republican debate, Huckabee said building an "enviable" education system would be a tool for a stronger America. He said children are sitting in schools with their heads on their desks, asleep.
That ended the education discussion. Stephanopoulos never asked a direct education question during the Republican debate.
Some said the candidates aren't the only ones to blame. George Wood, director of the Forum for Education and Democracy, which is committed to the democratic role of public education, said the press isn't asking enough questions.
During the Feb. 21 Democratic debate in Austin, Texas, the only mention of education was at the beginning when both Obama and Clinton said college should be more affordable but offered no specifics.
Neither Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., nor Huckabee mentioned education during the Jan. 30 Republican debate in California.
"Education should rank high if we are going to be a country that continues to offer the promise of being the best educated and the best economically developed," Weaver said.
Candidates are likely to wait until after the primaries to discuss bread-and-butter issues such as education because it can be a divisive issue, said Alan Lichtman, an American University professor of history with an expertise in politics.
"There are several issues that might be difficult to define in the primary but much easier once the general election is underway and candidates have to issue their stances," Lichtman said.
For the U.S. to have a sound economy, it must have an educated workforce, said Adam Thibault, senior policy analyst for Strong American Schools ED in '08, which is dedicated to increasing education talk among candidates.
"You can't talk about one without talking about the other," Thibault said.
Thibault's organization has devised three pillars it hopes candidates will address: more rigorous standards, merit-based teacher pay and longer school days. Thibault said the four major candidates have each adopted at least one of the pillars.
Democrats are generally "hungrier" on the education issue, said Amy Wilkins, vice president for government affairs and communication for the Education Trust, which works to close the achievement gap for low income and minority students.
Weaver said Republicans "want to hold people accountable, but don't want to give them the resources to do so."
McCain recently added education to the list of issues on his campaign Web site.
"We just have awful Web guys," said Brian Rogers, a McCain spokesman, about why education hadn't been featured on the Web site.
Wilkins said education has not been McCain's focus as a senator. "I'm not sure his heart is in it," she said.
Lichtman said Republicans are stronger on taxes and national security, but President George W. Bush tried to fight this stereotype with his advocacy for No Child Left Behind.
Wilkins said Democrats, who claim education as their issue, believe Bush stole the issue from them when he proposed No Child Left Behind.