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The Democrats' Non-Answers on Expanding the School Calendar

Did you watch last night's Democratic debate from Philadelphia, broadcast on MSNBC?

If you stayed tuned past 90 minutes of the debate, then you heard an interesting education question (and really the only one of the debate) posed to the seven candidates. If you didn't catch it, you can watch it here or read the transcript here. NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams noted that students in other countries spend an average of 193 days a year in school, while American students spend about 180 days. The deficit, Williams noted, adds up to one year over a student's career. So Williams asked if the school day and/or year needs to be extended, and whether the candidates will commit to it.

It was a pretty direct question. But the only direct answers came from New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson and Sen. Joe Biden of Delaware, both of whom unequivocally said "Yes"— they'd commit to expanding instruction time if elected.

Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois was fairly direct, saying he favored "more instruction" in the classroom.

Former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards avoided the question entirely, using his 30 seconds to outline his specific plans for education reform (pre-k and incentive pay for teachers). Sen. Chris Dodd of Connecticut declared education the single most important issue, but didn't come anywhere close to talking about extending the school year.

Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio and Sen. Hillary Clinton, the frontrunner from New York, gave the most meandering answers. Kucinich started out by talking about a statue in the House of Representatives, before moving onto his promise of free two- or four-year college education. Clinton talked about the importance of families, prekindergarten, nurse visitation for young children, and the need for another Sputnik-like moment that prompted a focus on math and science.

Admittedly, states set school calendars, but that doesn't mean the president can't provide leadership in this area. It's unfortunate that most of these candidates were so on message, failing to deviate from their talking points, that we didn't get to hear what they thought about an important issue in education—instruction time.

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