Sleeper issue: Education

Ask any political operative what the hottest issue is today, and they’ll offer the same answer: jobs, jobs, jobs. (Some are so convinced of this fact that they can only utter the term in triplicate.)

Indeed, addressing the economic crisis is our nation’s biggest challenge. But with the world’s fiscal environment so uncertain, voters may question how much their congressman, their senator — or even their governor — can really do about it.

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It’s true that economic growth is bolstered by ending George W. Bush-era policies such as corporate deregulation, the shift of the tax burden from the wealthy to the middle class and incentives for companies that outsource jobs. But a long-term economic fix is impossible unless we expand opportunity for the next generation of workers.

Which is why there’s a sleeper issue this election season: education. Writ large, the only way for America to compete with rapidly rising nations like China and India is to better train our youth for the global economy. But to students and parents, the problem is more immediate and personal: large class sizes, a shortage of qualified teachers, soaring higher-education costs.

While it hasn’t received much attention from the press, President Obama has signed into law a number of education reforms that make a real difference to our country and its young people. The Recovery Act, which Republicans uniformly opposed, is making crucial investments in Head Start, elementary and secondary education and teacher performance while keeping 400,000 educators from being laid off. Obama launched a campaign to raise academic standards and encourage young Americans to study math and science. He’s doubled the amount of funding available for Pell Grants, invested in community colleges and expanded student loans cutting out the big-bank middlemen that needlessly increase cost and bureaucracy.

What’s the Republican education plan? Other than opposing the president’s agenda, there’s almost nothing on their congressional websites. House Minority Leader John Boehner (Ohio) lumped together the new healthcare law and Democrats’ student loan expansion, calling them “two job-killing government takeovers that are already hurting our economy.” Looking to the future, Republican Senate candidates from Colorado, Kentucky and Nevada have promised to abolish the Department of Education, which the Maine Republican Party also advocates.

At best, the GOP treats public education with neglect — at worst, hostility.

In state contests, Democratic candidates are seizing on the issue to highlight ideological differences. Nevada Democratic gubernatorial candidate Rory Reid is airing an ad about his opponent’s plan to slash school funding by hundreds of millions of dollars. In Massachusetts this week, Democrats jumped on a report that Republican Charles Baker, while serving on a key state education panel, skipped a third of the board’s meetings. Earlier this month, Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland (D) criticized former Rep. John Kasich’s (R) vote to increase the cost of college loans. Look for more such contrasts over the next three months.

This fall, Democrats should welcome a debate that pits President Obama’s middle-class agenda against the GOP’s plan to return to the failed policies of the past. But they shouldn’t overlook how the parties differ in their commitment to building the economy of tomorrow. And that starts with education. 

Del Cecato is a partner at AKPD Message and Media, the political consulting firm founded by David Axelrod in 1985. He served as media adviser and admaker for Obama for America and Obama-Biden 2008.