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Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Demanding Better Public Schools from Aspiring Leaders

To the presidential candidates, we say, 'Look to the public schools -- that's our future.'
by James Daly
published 1/14/2008
The quadrennial circus known as the presidential election kicked into warp speed this month. Already, we've had the New Hampshire primary and a handful of state caucuses. The majority of primaries -- the real money states -- are scheduled for the frozen first week in February, and within a month it's likely we will know which candidates will represent the major parties in November's election.

Though the current election has more in common substance-wise with Dancing with the Stars than with the Lincoln-Douglas debates, it's clear there is one issue the candidates should be pressed on: improving the state of public education.

It's easy to feel despondent during a presidential election year. One politico seems as much of an empty suit as the next -- in a nation this extraordinary, these are the best candidates we can come up with?

But our choice of elected representatives and the free and fair elections that bring them to power do matter; one only has to look back to the stolen presidential election of 2000 and consider what might have been if the vote-counting process had run its due course.

One of the most encouraging signs for public education this election year is the recent launch of Strong American Schools, a $60 million nonpartisan public-awareness and public-action campaign aimed at taking the issues surrounding our public schools to the top of the presidential-campaign agenda.

The Strong American Schools campaign (using the siren call of "Ed in '08") will employ a cross-media approach that includes television and radio ads, as well as an interactive e-campaign. Strong American Schools will not endorse specific presidential candidates, but will instead focus on three components the group believes form the building blocks of better schooling: a call for stronger, more consistent curriculum standards; lengthening the school day and year; and improving teacher quality through merit pay and other measures.

"The American dream is slipping away, and unless our leaders dramatically improve our public schools, our standard of living, our economy, and our very democracy will be threatened," says Eli Broad, founder of the Broad Foundation and a key backer of the campaign. "Our country's education system is no longer the best in the world. We need every American to demand better schools and specific policy solutions from presidential candidates. Our future depends on it."

The Strong American Schools project has quickly proven itself both ambitious and timely. One PSA features hip-hop singer Kanye West; it zoomed to a place among the top twenty most-viewed YouTube videos when it was released last September. Another ad, this time in print, shows a student writing "A histery of Irak" on a blackboard. "Debating Iraq is tough," the copy reads. "Spelling it shouldn't be. America's schools are falling behind. It's a crisis that takes leadership to solve. So, to all presidential candidates, we say, 'What's your plan to fix our schools?'"

We know the answers won't come in a snappy sound bite. Our public education system is extraordinarily complex, and reflects the radical changes in this country over the past few decades. Nowhere is the change more evident than in public school classrooms. Though once predominantly white, we are now increasingly multi-hued. More and more of us were born in other nations, speak different languages, and carry various cultural traditions with us than ever before. Our family structures are changing -- many of us marry older, and many don't marry at all. Some groups of us have many children; some groups have none or few.

If candidates continue to talk in airy platitudes about public education, they are dodging questions about the future. We must all be willing to address education as an American challenge rather than as a narrow political issue. The music and rhythm of politics can be an awfully powerful thing, and it's time those skills are taken to bear on public education. Look to the schools -- that's our future. Without an educated and skilled workforce, America's competitiveness and security begin to spiral downward very quickly. We can't let that happen. A strong America depends on strong American schools.

James Daly
Editor in Chief

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