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For the Presidential Candidates, Education is a 'Duty, Not a Passion'

ED in ’08, a multi-million dollar campaign aimed at focusing attention on education issues in the 2008 presidential election, gathered a group of highly regarded political reporters, commentators, and operatives last evening for a forum on education and the campaign at the New Hampshire Institute of Politics at Saint Anselm College in Manchester. But little of the discussion centered around specific candidates and their education platforms.

Instead, several commentators said education has largely remained a backburner issue in the campaign so far.

Dan Balz, a national political correspondent for The Washington Post, suggested that this year’s big domestic issues appear to be immigration, health care, and the economy. He said most of the candidates don’t seem to be inspired by the education issue.

Talking about “education is a duty and not a passion for most of these candidates,” Balz said.

But Marc Lampkin, the national political director for ED in '08, said that a number of presidential candidates, including Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., and Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr., D-Del., have introduced “substantial, substantive” proposals on education, but that few in the national media have paid attention.

“Things are being said, but no one is talking about them,” Lampkin said. He said the media has largely been willing to accept candidates' proposals at face value, instead of pushing them for specifics. To illustrate the point, he noted that during one Democratic debate, a question on education asked candidates to name a favorite teacher.

Lampkin, whose organization has encouraged candidates to address issues including incentives for teachers, extended learning time, and rigorous, more uniform state educational standards, said ED in ’08 may have “underestimated” the extent to which negative views of the federal No Child Left Behind Act would dominate the discussion of education issues in the campaign.

He said that because the two parties' nomination campaigns began as wide-open contests, with no clear frontrunner in either party, candidates were quick to bash the No Child Left Behind law because that rhetoric plays well with each party’s base.

“Democrats don’t want to talk about [education] because of special interests” Lampkin said in an interview. “The [National Education Association] in particular has a disproportionate impact on the thinking of political candidates in the Democratic Party. They have a paralyzing effect and create unnatural barriers to reform. … The Republicans have a similar problem. … The conservative mantra is that education is a local issue.”

The forum itself didn’t draw a large crowd, although heavy rain last night in Manchester may had a lot to do with the relatively small turnout. About 25 people showed up for the event, including a handful of students from Saint Anselm College.

Other forum participants included Carl Cameron, the chief political correspondent of Fox News, Sue Casey, the director of the Campaign 2008: Campus Voices Project at Harvard University's Institute of Politics, and Walter Shapiro, the Washington bureau chief of Salon.com.

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