Now that the Republicans have settled on a nominee, the presidential race begins in earnest. It’s time for both candidates to spell out their positions on a wide range of issues.
But this is a two way street. It’s also time for voters to send a clear message — to federal officials, as well as local and state — about what they think is important and the solutions they want.
Nowhere is this more important than in the area of education.
Polls tell us that the economy is the No. 1 issue for voters. People are worried: about jobs, bills, college affordability, housing prices, and retiring with security. Unfortunately, confidence in leadership is low: According to a September 2011 Gallup poll, 81 percent are dissatisfied with how the country is governed.
But when you dig deeper into public opinion, you find that people believe the solutions are available. One widely held belief is in the importance of education. For generations, our schools have provided a path to individual and collective success. In today’s world, few would dispute that education is central to the health of the nation.
A recent study from the College Board — conducted in nine swing states by Hart Research Associates and North Star Opinion Research — provides an interesting and important picture of the American public’s view about education and its potential role in the upcoming elections.
Here’s some of what the report tells us. First, two-thirds say it is extremely important that education be a major topic in the upcoming elections. Second, more than three-quarters say that education will have a big impact on America’s ability to compete successfully in the global economy. Third, improving education is identified as one of the two most important ways to get the economy back on track (the other is reducing our reliance on foreign oil). Fourth, more than three-quarters say that we need more money for our schools and a majority would be willing to pay additional taxes for education.
Here’s the paradox: Lawmakers have not recently been big supporters of education. In fact, over the last few years, both K-12 and higher education budgets have been slashed. At least 43 states imposed cuts to public colleges and universities, resulting in large increases in tuition to make up for insufficient operational funds. A federal report estimates that between 2008 and 2011, nearly 300,000 education jobs have been lost.
One shout out here is necessary, and that is to community colleges. Too often, when we think of education, we think of K-12 and four-year colleges. The truth is that community colleges are a vital part of the education community, providing a pathway to four-year colleges and job training.
To be fair, elected officials are in a tough spot. Revenues for all levels of government are down, giving them no alternative but to reduce critical public services. But we must reject solutions that mortgage our future. It is simply not acceptable to say that we are too poor to provide teachers in our classrooms, sports and arts in our schools, security for our students and affordable college degrees.
There is good news on the horizon. Our economy seems to be turning. Employment numbers are up, and employers are likely to hire 10 percent more college graduates in 2012 than in 2011. And people are becoming more optimistic: More than a quarter are optimistic about the economy, double the percentage in the third quarter of 2011.
In talking about the College Board report, Gaston Caperton, president of that organization and a former two-term governor of West Virginia, says “No political group escapes criticism in the study, and that is how it should be. America has turned the other way for too long when it comes to education.”
This is not that complicated. Good schools will allow us to compete internationally and give us the economy we want and need. Bad schools will allow our economy and dreams to crumble.
Clearly, there is a major opportunity for the candidate who speaks about education with knowledge and conviction. But we need to keep politicians honest by letting them know what we want and holding them accountable. A strong system of education should be at the top of our list.