Historically, the American people have supported higher education (see my previous posts, for example “We the People Demand Higher Education!” 11 January, 2012 and “Students Fight for Higher Education,” 31 January, 2012). According to the College Board Swing State Survey (15-20 March, 2012), American consider education as equal to healthcare, right behind jobs/economy and government spending, in terms of top issues in this year’s elections for presidential candidates and other government office hopefuls. Americans ranked supporting education a close second in terms of getting the country back on track economically. Some relevant results from the survey include:
• Focusing on education is seen as a means of getting the economy back on track.
• Three in four voters believe that a post-secondary degree is important to achieving success in the workplace.
• There is widespread support for increased funding of education, and a majority of voters (55%) would be willing to pay $200 more in taxes to do so.
• Voters say increased public funds for education should be used to ensure elementary and secondary schools offer well rounded curricula in arts, music, physical education, and to hold down the cost of college tuition.
• Nevertheless, voters also say that increasing the affordability of college, ensuring students graduate high school, and improving the quality of public schools should be top goals for the president and Congress to address.
• In terms of the upcoming elections, voters look more favorably on candidates whose education positions address college affordability and emphasize the importance of making America a leader again in postsecondary degrees. (15-20 March, 2012)
It seems clear: Education is highly important to Americans.
The Silence of the Candidates
In spite of the above, only a few short weeks ago, Mitch Smith of Inside Higher Ed lamented the fact that in relation to other issues, candidates for office, especially the presidential hopefuls, were giving little attention to education in contrast to other issues which were ranked as less important to Americans (5 April, 2012).
Smith acknowledges that President Obama has stressed education during his administration; however, he points out that the Republican presidential hopefuls were known mostly for Mitt Romney’s comments in support of for-profits. “In fact,” Smith points out, “higher ed’s most prominent cameo in the Republican race was Rick Santorum’s assertion that Obama was a “snob” for suggesting every American needed postsecondary education. The former Pennsylvania senator added that plenty of ‘good, decent men and women’ were ‘not taught by some liberal college professor’” (5 April, 2012).
Clearly, the desires of the American people are not being fully met. College Board President Gaston Caperton is quoted by Smith as basically saying that the candidates don’t seem to understand how important education is to the American voter. He also argues that part of the disconnect revealed in the study is a disagreement over the role of the federal vs. state power in education: Democrats (59%) want to see the federal government take more control, while Republicans (79%) would rather see more local control (qtd. in Smith, M. 5 April, 2012).
Signs of Hope
With such a strong force as the American electorate, some signs of hope are emerging. Without assuming a connection between their views on education, it is noteworthy to point out that since Smith’s column was published, Rick Santorum has suspended his presidential bid and Newt Gingrich plans to end his campaign this Wednesday. Garin points out that swing voters, who consist largely of female and minority voters, could perhaps have been swayed to support a Republican presidential hopeful who was a strong advocate for education (qtd. in Smith, M., 5 April, 2012). Perhaps the lesson isn’t lost on front-runner, Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama.
On the heels of Rick Santorum’s April 10th announcement that he was suspending his campaign, Obama took the lead by campaigning on a on a platform that stresses that “prosperity doesn’t trickle down” but grows up from a strengthened lower and middle class; the rich need to pay higher taxes to support the people’s priorities like education (Benac, N. 20 April, 2012).
By April 24th, I was able to post a short list of ways that President Obama, Mitt Romney, and maybe even larger numbers of Democrats and Republicans were working together to make education a priority. Ben Fellers of the Huffington Post stated that Obama was “courting college voters” by seeking to keep college loans less expensive, (24 April, 2012) while on the same day, CBS News Money Watch reported that Mitt Romney supports the president’s student loan reforms. There were also hints of bipartisan support for preventing the doubling of student loan interest rates on July 1st (LeBlanc, S. 24 April, 2012).
This is movement in the right direction, and voters must continue to push local and national candidates toward true support for education. As indicated by the College Board summary points quoted at the beginning of this post, Americans are willing to pay a bit more to get a lot more, as they feel confident that education is the key to fixing our economy. It’s noteworthy that voters want “affordable” higher education, but are not asking for it to be free. Americans also want a well-rounded curriculum, so they aren’t looking for cuts to the arts or physical education.
Hopefully, candidates and elected officials are listening. If not, my hope is that Americans respond with their votes.
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