Move over kissing babies and apple pie, education wins the prize for the safest play of this presidential campaign. The defining moment happened during last night’s debate when both candidates sidestepped a question on gun control. Any polling expert could tell you why they sidestepped the question (fear the angry hunters in those battleground states), but who saw the jump to education as the obvious diversion? The witty might call that an education misfire – I call it a well planned fallback, the strategy both candidates intended to use when the hot seat got too hot.
So how did education become the safe issue? One needs to look no further than the most recent public opinion polls. Education has, and continues, to poll really well with the American people. It consistently ranks in the top tier along with the economy and job creation. It also polls very high among women – particularly those undecided women in battleground states critical for victory.
Education advocates can learn a lot from polling data. My favorite poll of this election season, the August Gallup poll on education, sheds a lot of light on the two candidate’s platforms. Right off the bat it reinforces the need to talk about education, revealing that a mere 7% of Americans are very satisfied with the quality of schools in this country.
When you dig a little further, you see that only 5% of Americans gave the public schools an excellent rating compared to 31% for private schools. Now, are we at all surprised that Romney has made private school vouchers such a key component of his campaign?
When asked what they think is the best way to improve the quality of education for their children, the most popular answer among parents of K-12 students was reducing the number of children per classroom. Does this remind you of President Obama’s famous television ad criticizing Romney for being willing to cut federal education funding by raising class size? And the second most popular answer, quality teaching, is the cornerstone of the President’s agenda.
If these poll numbers are any indication, we will hear a lot more about education in the remaining three weeks of this campaign. It may not always be the leadoff, but it will certainly rise again and again as the candidates try to avoid sticky issues and appeal to the voters who take their children, grandchildren, nieces and nephews to the polling booth on November 6th. Let’s just hope whomever wins doesn’t forget that pledges to protect education funding and the Pell Grant helped pave the way to four years in the Oval Office.
Lillian Pace is the Senior Director of National Policy with KnowledgeWorks.