I do a lot of work for public school districts. My job is to help them wage “the permanent campaign,” the ongoing effort to build a large enough reservoir of good will to pass a bond issue or mill levy if the need ever arises. This is tough business. May voters, especially empty-nest seniors, tend to think that schools waste a lot of money, even when they don’t.
Second, I have discovered that the passion for most local school issues outstrips enthusiasm for major “national” issues that Washington dotes on. If most voters are offered the choice of participating in a focus group discussing the next congressional election or one that will thrash out topics facing community schools, Congress gets stomped. Topics that most readers of The Hill would consider arcane, like whether third- and sixth-graders should be on the same campus or whether the first day of school is before or after Labor Day, are very salient to most adult Americans. To use pollster-speak, there is considerable intensity surrounding school issues.
So here comes the Obama speech. The president, leader of the Democratic Party as well as the nation, wants to deliver a homily to school students about staying in school and working hard. It sounds like the sort of personal-responsibility and accountability message that most Republicans would endorse.
But they didn’t. Some even threatened to keep their kids home. Democrats called complainers “crazy.” The only poll I could find with any credibility was an online survey by the Baltimore Sun. Of 5,288 participants, 57 percent thought Obama should speak to the kids, 36 percent opposed the speech in class time and 7 percent wanted to know more about the speech before deciding. If Obama didn’t have 43 percent fully on board in Baltimore, he was upside down in many other communities.
Inside the D.C. Beltway, though, this was a non-event. Pollsters focused on Obama’s approval ratings doted on reactions to his healthcare speech while giving little thought to the possibility that many Americans might have paid more attention to the school speech and possibly were more prone to discuss it with others. So they overlooked the prospect that the president’s ill-advised decision to force himself on schools hurt some allies and reinforced his enemies. Some school districts will still be getting grief for this long after Obama’s moved on to other issues.
Republicans were on solid ground challenging this potentially partisan intrusion into our schools. As distinguished American historian V.O. Key once observed, “One of the first tasks of new rulers is to rewrite the textbooks and to purge the school system of adherence to old ways ... the educational machine might be used to imprint the goals of the new order upon the plastic minds of the youth of the land.” Obama should have been wiser than to go there, arousing latent passions. It will be much more difficult now for his friends in public education to earn the community support that many school districts deserve.
David Hill is a member of the research faculty at Auburn University and has been a Republican pollster since 1984.