Even in the campaign’s fora for education policy wonks, evaluation has been a very minor topic. Unless No Child Left Behind becomes material to the election, scientifically based research and its siblings (SBR) will remain the most important issue in federal education policy the Presidential candidates have yet to discuss.
The reasons why SBR is an obscure talking point in debate over the tertiary topic of program evaluation on the second level campaign issue of public education are easy to state:
• Compared to gas prices, the economy, Iraq, Afghanistan and terrorism, education is not among the average American voter’s top priorities. Other things being equal, the candidates' views on program evaluation don’t influence many voters. As a result, both consider the economy and foreign affairs the decisive arenas, and education a low-cost opportunity to satisfy their bas. Democrats may understand how moving education front and center will tend to divide their party, and Republicans have not grasped that potential.
• To the extent public schools are an issue, the easiest strategy for substantive debate is to stick with the holy trinity of school accountability, funding levels and vouchers. Democrat Obama argues that NCLB’s accountability regime is unreasonable, more money is required, and that vouchers are incompatible with public education. Republican McCain takes the opposing view. To suggest some creativity and independence, each candidate has added the traditional billion dollar barrel of pet projects. Candidates and campaigns managers are comfortable with this set piece engagement, because it leaves them to do what they know how to do.
• If a candidate were to consider adding a new argument to the education policy troika, the subject of program evaluation seems too hard to explain in a sound bite. It is a testament to the subject’s arcane nature that the Obama campaign has not tied McCain’s strong support for NCLB to the mismanagement of SBR in Reading First and Supplementary Education Services in its efforts to cast the Republican candidate as Bush III. Even in the campaign’s for a for education policy wonks, evaluation has been a very minor topic.
As matters now stand, it’s not likely that either candidate will make their position on SBR a matter of record – voluntarily or under duress. Let me offer a scenario where one might. It is a stretch, even far fetched, but based on three fact-based analyses.