Education is a sleeper issue in the 2012 election campaign. But do the candidates really want to wake it? Given the struggling nature of the economy and the ongoing risk of economic meltdown in Europe, perhaps it is no surprise that the issue has received relatively little attention from the mass media. If recent public opinion polls are to be believed, however, education is highly salient in the minds of voters. Indeed, according to a recent CNN poll, 78% of Americans report that education will have a major impact on their vote in the presidential election.
At the same time – and despite sharp partisan conflict between Democrats and Republicans in Congress – education has been an area of major, albeit submerged, programmatic reform in 2012. While major statutory reforms to federal education policies have not been forthcoming, behind-the-scenes administrative changes have profoundly altered the premier federal policy affecting elementary and secondary education: the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). Indeed, using its waiver authority, the Obama administration has, over the past few months, released more than thirty states from some of NCLB’s most controversial provisions, including the requirement that all students reach academic proficiency by 2014.
Given the level of public interest and the significance of recent policy changes, will the sleeper awake in time for the upcoming October 3 presidential debate on domestic policymaking? So far, neither Obama nor his Republican challenger, Mitt Romney, has made much of the issue during the campaign. Still, it’s possible that education could play an important part in the debate, because the issue fits into the broader narrative that each campaign wants to tell voters going into the election. For the Obama team, the waiver decisions represent yet another pragmatic presidential response to partisan Republican intransigence, and thus highlight the president’s responsible leadership style. Obama’s Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, suggested as much in the statement announcing the most recent waiver requests. “More and more states can’t wait any longer for education reform,” Duncan intoned. “A strong bipartisan reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act remains the best path forward in education reform, but as these states have demonstrated, our kids can’t wait any longer for Congress to Act.” Additionally, by touting his willingness to allow “states the flexibility to use local solutions to improve their schools”, as he does on his campaign website, Obama may be hoping to inoculate himself against charges, made repeatedly by his Republican opponent, that his administration has aggressively centralized political power in the federal government.