November is nearing, and around the country candidates are courting voters. But, if they really want to connect with the men and women they hope to represent, they should start speaking up about a topic Americans care deeply about but which is being ignored.


A recent poll by the College Board showed more than two-thirds of voters call education an issue that is “extremely important” to them in the 2012 election. Only jobs and the economy are viewed with more urgency, and large majorities of voters see education and job creation as inextricably linked.

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It’s not surprising voters care about this issue and want to hear more about it. What is surprising is that — across the country — candidates for federal office are barely taking note of that.

Let’s start at the top. One of President Obama’s most notable accomplishments has been creating a grant program — Race to the Top — that has helped spur innovation and improvements in states, particularly around developing great teachers and expanding public-school choices for families. During the campaign, both he and Mitt Romney have spoken to the importance of improving teacher quality. But considering how central the issue is to our nation’s future, it’s been a surprisingly peripheral discussion.

Our public-education system is not serving children nearly as well as it ought to be. Each year, about a third of our high-school students fail to graduate on time with their peers. When our graduates do arrive on college campuses, about a third need remedial coursework because they weren’t adequately prepared during their K-12 years.

We also have a persistent and absolutely unconscionable achievement gap between poor and minority children and their wealthier, white peers. And there is a major gap in the performance between U.S. students and their global peers. Right now, American students are ranked 25 out of 34 when compared to teens from other industrialized countries in math.

When you think about those statistics, it makes the lack of focus on education in campaigns across the country very disheartening.

I understand congressional incumbents might have some trouble talking about their record on education, because, well, it’s been pretty slim in recent years. By failing to act, Congress has failed our youths. Nowhere has that been starker than on the debate around No Child Left Behind.

No Child Left Behind should have been reformed and rewritten five years ago. While NCLB has helped push schools to be much more accountable for student learning, it is certainly far from perfect and needs to be significantly altered to truly serve students well. The Senate and the House committees responsible for education both passed an initial effort to do this, but neither chamber has taken up and passed a bill that could win approval. If the full Congress were to act to reform NCLB, then maybe they’d have something to talk about.

As long as we fail to take on these issues and have a robust debate around them — not only in Washington, D.C., but in congressional districts around the country — politicians will have little reason to act. If they start to engage voters and each other on these issues, however, and hear just how much people care, then maybe we’ll see some of the changes our schools so badly need.

Lawmakers, and those aspiring to serve in office, need to take meaningful stands on key issues such as how we ensure a great teacher for every child or how we provide high-quality school choices to all families. Similarly, constituents at home have a responsibility, too, and need to be asking candidates where they stand on these issues. Education needs to be at the heart of these debates, because otherwise it will continue to be ignored and our schools will continue to fail too many of our students.

Our children need advocates and policymakers in their communities and at all levels of government, including in Congress, looking out for their interests and pushing schools to improve. Given the public’s intense interest in the issue, taking on education is not only the right thing for candidates to do — it’s also the smart thing.

A recent Council on Foreign Relations report stated that our national security could be at risk if we didn’t address our failure to provide every child with a great education. Maybe the words “national security” will wake our candidates up. Whatever it takes, I hope those running for office — and those in office — listen to voters and engage in the national conversation around creating a 21st century public-education system that will meet the needs of our youth and our country.

Rhee, the founder and CEO of  StudentsFirst, is the former chancellor of Washington, D.C., schools.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this op-ed failed to clarify that the education committees in both chambers passed initial versions of an NCLB rewrite, but there hasn't been enough support for a comprehensive bill to pass through the full House or Senate.