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Education and the 2012 election: A strategist's analysis

"The governor [has] got to get out there and say 'Look, this is the California that I envisioned, and in that California, schools play a critical role. It's about the future of our kids. It's about the future of the state and the country. And this is how [Prop.] 30 fits into that," said Darry Sragow, a longtime political strategist.
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Over the weekend, I spoke with Darry Sragow, an attorney and longtime Democratic strategist, about education's role in the 2012 election. Sragow has worked on several school bond campaigns at L.A. Unified and the Los Angeles Community College District. I picked his brain on the role of education in the national debate this election season. I also got some of his thoughts on the campaigns for Prop. 30 and Prop. 38. Educators throughout the state support the two initiatives to raise taxes in the hope that voters will approve them next month and school budgets will be saved.

Q: Why is education not really figuring into the national debate during this election season?

A: Education is usually in California the No. 1 issue. If it's not education, it's the economy, and at the moment, it's the economy. Education is not an issue most voters think can be inherently dealt with at a national level. Schools are local and so voters inherently expect to have a dialogue about education in local races and maybe in state races in their state, but it's really a national issue only in a very broad policy sense. That's not insignificant, because at a national level you can set standards, "No Child Left Behind," things like that. But it's tough to address it concretely in the national race. Plus, of course, the big national issue is jobs.

Q: Is it not an issue that can rally voters?

A: Education can rally voters articulated the right way under the right circumstances. I happen to believe, and this happens to be my view as a longtime strategist, that voters would love to hear the candidates talk about their fundamental vision about how we have to educate kids in the 21st century.  That's a very important issue that voters want to hear about. But the more mechanical issues of test scores and teacher performance at a national level is a yawn. That can be a big issue in individual districts. I do think there's an opening for Romney or Obama to talk about how we have to make sure that the kids in America are being educated to compete for the jobs that are going to exist when they get out of school — not the jobs that used to exist.

Q: But right now, aside from talk about student loans, it seems like not much else has figured into the national debate.

A: Well you know I have to be critical of both campaigns here, and this is something I say a lot, I don't think either candidate for president has articulated a clear vision of where they want America to be in 2020 or 2030, and then tied in all these other things, whether it's education programs or healthcare or anything else, under that overarching vision of what America should look like in a couple of decades. And I think that voters sense that and it drives them nuts.

Voters know that everything is changing. We're sending kids to school from roughly September to June and they're sitting in classrooms at a time when technology means they can be taught in entirely different ways, in terms of the use of information technology. And also, going to school year-round. The usefulness of September to June as the only time a kid learns is absurd because the student has access to learning technology 24 hours a day seven days a week 365 days a year. None of that's getting talked about.

Q: If you're talking about the future of America, and the future of this country, aren't you talking about education?

A: Of course. Education is extremely important, and it is a defining issue for this country. If this country's going to be less competitive 10, 20 years from now, it's because we're not educating kids with the skills they need...We have privatized public education. In most cases in America if you can afford to send your kids to private school you do that. So public school by definition is educating the kids who are the ones who need the help the most, that's what we have at the L.A. Unified School District. The kids whose parents can't afford to send their kid somewhere else, so they're the ones who have the highest likelihood of dropping out, the least likelihood of getting a good job after school, unless we take care and educate them the right way.

It is a huge problem, but you're right, it's not being addressed, and it's not being addressed I think not because the candidates don't care. I think they do care. And not because the voters don't care, because I think they do care. I think it's not getting addressed because we are at a time in America where the political dialogue is essentially counting angels on the heads of pins. We get lost in numbers over Medicare, we get lost in all this discussion that drives voters insane.

So yeah, it's a very important issue for the future of this country, and the future of the kids in particular in the public school system, who are the ones who need the education the most. And the fact that it's not being dealt with is a reflection I think not on that issue or education or its importance to voters or the country. I think it's a reflection of the fact that, I don't think the voters in America are lost right now, I think the leadership, the political elite in this country, is just sort of lost.

Q:Overall? On both sides?

A: Yes. Both sides. And on not just this issue. Again, I think voters are waiting for Romney and Obama to lay out in clear terms presumably competing visions of what America in 2020, 2025 should look like. Where they're going. And right now, nobody knows where we're going. I mean the fact that they're pulling back on the space program is emblematic of this. This is a country that's always conquered frontiers, and now we're saying, yeah, but we've run out of steam, we can't conquer the next frontier.

Q: Many school students who saw Endeavour roll by seemed to be witnessing the end of an era that they didn't really get a chance to experience.

A: There's no sense of a mission in which an ambitious smart student can participate to feel a sense of accomplishment or to aspire to something, and to make more of himself or herself than the cards that they were dealt.

Q: And for their country?

A: For their country, right. There just is no sense of a bigger mission. You know, I mean for better or worse there's no sense of a war that we're fighting with a great sense of justice. Going back to Vietnam and the war, people felt mixed. Certainly World War II you could say, this is good or bad, but certainly there was a sense of mission. We were going to save the free world. Sputnik, for people who are of that generation, united this country because they said we're not going to let the Russians beat us in space. We sat around mesmerized and watched the first human being land on the moon.

We don't have that right now. I can't think of an equivalent. [Instead] we're into survival mode. As a nation we seem to be in survival mode and that is terribly frustrating to voters because they expect more of themselves and their government and their leaders. And I think that's the real frustration. That's the real problem.

Q: On the issue of survival mode, let's talk about California's state budget, Prop. 30 and 38. They've been put forward to voters as emergency measures essentially, they must happen, or there will be dire circumstances. It sounds like a campaign based on fear and people don't like to be threatened. What do you think about that? Maybe you don't see it that way?

A: No, no, those measures are both based on fear. They're if you don't do this, terrible things are going to happen. Now that happens to be true, but again, we're talking about human psychology. And that is, if you say to me we can build a better tomorrow, but it's going to cost you $20, and I believe we can build a better tomorrow, I'm going to give you $20. If you say things are all screwed up, we've done a lousy job, and we're going to need $20 just to prevent calamity, I'm going to say that's just not a very motivating reason for me to give my $20. 

That's just human nature and again it comes back to, and I'm not faulting any one person, it's the nature of the dialogue, and I don't know how to break the fall.

The argument is the schools are screwed up and if we don't come up with this money they're going to be even more screwed up. You know what? That's true. Absolutely true. But that's not what people want to hear. They want to hear, the schools are screwed up, and here's how we're going to fix them, and this is what it's going to look like when we have fixed them, and this is how we're going to get there.

Q: This is what your $6 billion will bring.

A: Yes. Not your $6 billion is a big $6 billion Band-Aid. It's that your $6 billion is an investment in the future. That's the difference.

Q: So that's how you would change the messaging?

A: Sure. But it's not just the ads it's the discussion that everybody in the political process has to have. But you've got to start somewhere. The ads would be a perfectly fine place to start. But it has to come from the governor, it has to come from the president, it has to come from Romney, it has to come from the Legislature. Everybody has got to conclude: You know what? Today's the first day of the rest of our lives collectively, and we're going to do some good stuff. That's what's not happening.

Q: Do you think those measures are going to fail?

A: I don't know what's going to happen. I think that it's entirely possible that 30 will pass. I think it's extremely difficult for 38 to pass. They're both not doing particularly well, but 38 is in a deeper hole than 30 based on the polling right now. But look, voters want to do the right thing, they really do. They're just not sure what the right thing is here.

Q: And it's hard to know what the right thing is when you have two measures and mixed messages.

A: It's very confusing and it's not tangible. I managed five successful school bonds for the L.A. Unified School District, and I've run some community college bonds. I'll give you an example, the L.A. Community College District lost big time on a bond and then they asked me to come in and try again.

Here's the difference. Our bond talked about repairing community college buildings, fixing them, creating a community college system that was up to the job of training people in Los Angeles for the jobs of the future. The bond campaign before that, that lost, talked about spending money on things like really pretty scoreboards for the athletic fields. I mean that literally is what they did.

Voters go 'You want me to pay more money in property taxes to build nice scoreboards? No, that's not worth it to me.' 'You want me to spend money to build classrooms so that people who want to get a community college degree can get a community college degree? Yeah.' 'Not fancy buildings, but yeah we don't have classrooms, we don't have chairs? I'll put my money into that.' That's the difference."

Q: Do you think there's anything that can be done right now to provide people with the information they need. Because there are multiple scenarios: what happens if 30 and 38 passes, or one passes and the other doesn't, if neither passes.

A: Well, because you have both 30 and 38, it's a chess game it's not a checkers game. There's multiple moves, and that makes it more interesting for the campaign consultants, but tougher to win.

I'm always reluctant to be sitting out here in the bleachers calling in the plays, but I would make sure that in very clear stark terms the 30 campaign, notably the governor, made it clear to voters exactly how this fits into, again, the broader plan that he has for California. This is what it's about.

I think the governor [has] got to get out there and say 'Look, this is the California that I envisioned, and in that California schools play a critical role. It's about the future of our kids. It's about the future of the state and the country. And this is how 30 fits into that. Now he's got not a lot of time to do it and that's not easy to do, but I really think people want hope — I shouldn't say this — hope and change. That's what they voted for last time.

They may feel they didn't get it. But that's what they want.

Tami Abdollah can be reached via email and on Twitter (@latams).