Presidential Candidates Should Debate Education

Believe it or not, it wasn't until the very last question of the very last debate when the 2008 presidential candidates were finally asked about education policy. At Reading Is Fundamental (RIF), we're urging the debate moderators to ask the question early and often.

Even though the lion's share of policy discourse is focused on other issues, a recent Rasmussen survey shows 61 percent of likely voters rate education as very important.

At the same time education is not being raised in election chatter, headlines related to this issue are grabbing our attention, like the one last week showing 2012 high school graduates scored lower in reading on the SATs than they have in four decades.

Study after study underscores the importance of adequately preparing students for success even before they enter a classroom, starting with reading at an early age. But there's been so little focus on this issue that most voters have no clue where the candidates stand.

At RIF, we're focused on ensuring children in need have access to the most basic tool for learning -- books. The Department of Education announced Friday that RIF will receive $4.18 million for a new program to help combat challenges around book access and the loss of reading skills during the summer months. The program will be based on work by researchers at Harvard University and the University of Virginia showing that with a fairly low-cost approach, big gains can be made to stem summer learning loss.

With the economy and unemployment at the center of this campaign, the electorate is looking for effective and efficient answers to the very issues they prioritize. Book access can be just that -- an answer with a high return on investment.

Consider this. A child in the U.S. without books is on his or her way to becoming:
• 1 of the 33 percent of 4th graders who cannot read at the basic level
• 1 of the 7,000 students who drop out of high school every school day
• 1 of the 40 million adults who cannot read

Imagine the difference we could make if education were a central focus of our domestic policy. Imagine the implications for unemployment and our global competitiveness; for our families and our communities; for our future.

While education is an important issue for voters, the number one issue in this election will be the economy and jobs. According to the CBC News/New York Times September poll of registered voters, the economy and jobs ranks 26 percent higher than any other issue when it comes to deciding how they'll vote for president. But how strong can our economy and workforce be if one in five adults in the U.S. is functionally illiterate?

The ties between education and the economy are clear. But will it be up to the candidates to raise it or will the moderators consider it as a key issue worth an honest exchange?

As the candidates take the stage Wednesday night and Jim Lehrer poses the first question, we'll be watching, waiting and listening.

Rasco has been at Reading Is Fundamental, the nation's largest children's literacy organization, since 2001. In the organization's 45-year history, RIF has distributed more than 400 million free, new books to more than 35 million children.