The former chairmen of the Republican and Democratic parties have come together in a bipartisan effort to push education reform to center stage in the 2008 presidential campaign.
Former Democratic National Committee Chairman and Colorado Governor Roy Romer and former Republican National Committee Chairman and Bush White House political affairs director Ken Mehlman were the guests at Thursday's Monitor breakfast. Mr. Romer is chairman and Mr. Mehlman is a trustee of Strong American Schools. The organization describes itself as a nonpartisan campaign to make education a top national priority by making the subject a centerpiece of the 2008 election.
"This nation has been drifting back in comparison with the rest of the world for the last 20 years in education," Romer said. After serving as governor, Romer was superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District from 2001 to 2006. "Where we used to be No. 1 or No. 2, we are now, if you compare 15-year-olds," 21st among 30 industrial nations in science, he said. "The rest of the world has advanced very rapidly in education, and we have been making some advances but not nearly at the same pace," he argued.
In a front page story Thursday, The New York Times reported on what it called a "dropout epidemic" so pronounced that only about 70 percent of the 1 million American students who start ninth grade each year graduate four years later.
Mehlman and Romer described both economic and moral reasons why Americans should focus more intensely on improving education.
"In my opinion, this is the justice and competitiveness issue of our time," Mehlman said. "If you stop and think about our history, one of the reasons we had an American century and there is an American dream was because at key points in our history we made very bold decisions about making sure that there was very broad, universal access to quality education."
The US would profit economically if our educational system improved, Romer said. "There is an entirely different economic future that we are going to be living in and education is the key to that future," he said. If US students improved to where their test scores matched the midpoint of European student achievement, the US gross domestic product would grow an additional 5 percent over the next 30 years, producing trillions of dollars of added resources for the US, he said.
While there are clear benefits to improving the US education system, making the issue a centerpiece of a campaign will not be easy. "Part of our challenge is the eventful nature of 2007-2008. You have got a war. You've got real economic concerns, economic challenges that are unique at the moment. That all happening makes it hard to cut through on the education issue," Mehlman said.
A USA Today/Gallup poll released in February found education ranked as the third most important issue out of 14 in selecting a president. Education trailed the economy and Iraq but came in ahead of healthcare, government corruption, and energy prices.
To maintain its bipartisan stance, Strong American Schools carefully avoids many of the hot button issues in education that divide along party lines, including school vouchers and the fate of President Bush's "No Child Left Behind" legislation.
Despite potential political minefields, there is a pressing need for greater national coherence on education, Romer said. "I don't see any other industrial nation in the world that has left their education as decentralized as we have. Now I'm not trying to federalize education but you simply put yourself in the position of the next president. You cannot move this nation into the next century unless you get more coherence and national unity on what we are going to do with education, how we are going to measure it, how we are going to get the right kind of teachers in the classroom, and how we are going to measure our success," he said. "There is a need for us to have a national understanding about where we are going."
When the conversation turned to politics, Romer was closely questioned as he is one of the Democratic Party's uncommitted superdelegates who could tip the balance in the party's tight nomination battle. He was co-chairman of President Clinton's reelection campaign and Bill Clinton was in the White House when Romer was head of the Democratic Party.
His comments will probably give more comfort to the Obama campaign than the Clinton team. "Any decision that goes against the delegate count is a difficult decision," Romer said. At the moment, Barack Obama leads Hillary Rodham Clinton in the number of elected delegates. The "math is very compelling."