Education Not Significant '08 Issue, Analysts Say

By Monisha Bansal | July 7, 2008 | 8:23 PM EDT

( - Eight years ago, President Bush made education a signature issue in his first presidential campaign, and this year, Congress has been considering reauthorizing the No Child Left Behind Act, Bush's signature piece of legislation on the issue.

Nonetheless, education has thus far not emerged as a major issue in the 2008 presidential campaign, and analysts are divided over whether it will.

"Education is one of those bread and butter issues, the kind that every American can rally around," said former Democratic Colorado Gov. Roy Romer, chairman of Strong American Schools, a liberal-leaning group.

"We've heard from the candidates several times that there is no issue more important than education, and if this momentum continues, education just may be the issue that takes them all the way to the White House," Romer added.

"I am encouraged more presidential candidates are announcing substantive and detailed K-12 education proposals for strengthening America's schools," Romer said in a statement.

"This is a very positive development and proves that the candidates are responding to the voters' call to hear about the candidates' plans to reform our education system," he said.

"Education will be an important issue during the 2008 elections," said Dan Lips, education analyst with the conservative Heritage Foundation.

"Parents certainly care about their children's opportunities. And taxpayers are concerned about the quality of the schools they are supporting. And, unfortunately, it is clear that millions of children in America's schools are not receiving a quality education," Lips said.

But Lips told Cybercast News Service that "so far, education hasn't become a big issue in the primary season."

Neal McCluskey, an education policy analyst with the libertarian Cato Institute, however, said, "I don't think it's going to be a very big role. I mean clearly the war in Iraq is the biggest issue, and then you have things like immigration, and economic policy and all those have really overshadowed education."

"I don't see anything on the horizon that's likely to change that," he told Cybercast News Service. "I don't think this is going to be the deciding factor for very many voters, if any."

McCluskey acknowledged that while "most of the candidates have at least mentioned No Child Left Behind, none of them fully endorse it, and many have on both sides - Republican and Democrat - distanced themselves from it."

The No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) is scheduled for reauthorization this year. The act is President George W. Bush's major education initiative and was first introduced in 2001.

The act sets up strict goals for achievement through standardized testing of public school students. The goal of the law is to ensure that all children graduate at grade-level performance by 2014.

The initiative, which expanded the role of the Department of Education, was seen as a departure from previous Republican platforms that called for a limited federal role in education, if any.

"Eliminating the Department of Education used to be a standard cry of conservatives rallying against 'big government' in Washington, D.C.," said Sean Foreman, a political science professor at Barry University in Miami Shores, Fla. "That argument is not as popular as it once was.

"George W. Bush made education reform a staple of his domestic agenda and supporters hail No Child Left Behind as the seminal success of the president's administration," said Foreman. "Republicans who hope to succeed Bush as president are trying to build on that legacy rather than tear it down."

But Lips said, "Among the Republicans, I think there is an opportunity to turn away from the big government approach to improving American education that is the premise of No Child Left Behind and to return to more traditional conservative principles of federalism and limited government."

Lips noted that he does not expect candidates to propose abolishing the Department of Education.

"But I do think we should see Republicans offering alternatives to No Child Left Behind and other programs based on the principles of restoring state and local control and empowering parents to have greater control of their children's education," he said.

"I don't know of any Democrats who have endorsed voucher programs or really meaningful school choice," added McCluskey. "I know that someone like Ron Paul is in favor of school choice programs. Rudy Giuliani is. And most of the Republicans at least seem to talk about more options for parents and charter schools and voucher programs."

He noted that a number of Republicans and Democrats have been critical of NCLB.

"Within the education discussion, there is a lot of talk among Democrats of who is responsible for No Child Left Behind, especially the under funding of it. Only Richardson, that I've seen, would completely repeal it. Among Republicans, very few have wanted to come out in favor of No Child Left Behind," said McCluskey, adding that former Gov. Mitt Romney (R-Mass.) is in favor of the education law.

"Mitt Romney did recently say he likes the idea of No Child Left Behind in general, although he thinks the states should have more power," he said. "[Rep]. Ron Paul (R-Texas) would still get rid of the Department of Education. [Rep. Tom] Tancredo (R-Colo.) also talks about getting the federal government out of education, although I don't know that he has ever come out and called for complete elimination."

"The rest of the Republicans all talk about local control, but none of them have made eliminating the federal role entirely in education, or making them primary focuses of their campaign," McCluskey said.

He added that former Gov. Mike Huckabee (R-Ark.) is "soft on [school] choice."

"He seems a lot more favorable to significant government involvement in education than other Republican candidates have been," said McCluskey.

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