‘Ed’ campaign aims to draw attention to education in ’08

Meet Ed. He’s running for president in 2008.

Ed doesn’t belong to a political party, and he doesn’t claim to have all the answers. Like many independent candidates, he just wants to draw attention to his pet issue.

Unlike a lot of independent candidates, Ed has $60 million he plans to use to get his message out.

“Ed in ’08” is not a person, but a campaign to get the presidential candidates on both sides of the aisle talking about kindergarten through 12th grade education and how they plan to deal with what the campaign’s backers say is a crisis.

“The presidential campaign is the time when our country addresses what’s important and what direction we need to go,” former Colorado Gov. Roy Romer said at Ed’s Nevada kickoff Monday morning at a news conference at the Clark County Government Center. Romer is chairman of the organization behind Ed, a nonprofit called Strong American Schools.

“I know we’ve got the war in Iraq, we’ve got the issue of health care, we need to do something about global warming,” he said. But none of those problems can be solved, he argued, if America’s youth aren’t prepared to compete in the world economy.

“Education is the fundamental issue for the future of this nation,” said Romer, a Democrat with a reputation for centrism and for focusing on education. Romer, Colorado’s governor from 1987 to 1999, also served as superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District from 2001 until last year.

The statistics in Nevada continue to be dismal. Just 21 percent of Nevada fourth-graders are proficient in reading; only 54 percent of students who enter ninth grade will graduate from high school on time. These obstacles aren’t new, and all politicians promise to improve education. But Ed claims to have some new ways to address them — ideas that could provoke ire from partisans on both sides.

Romer said Democrats are often wary of new approaches to teacher compensation because they fear alienating the powerful teachers union, while Republicans are reluctant to impose federal control on schools rather than leaving them to the states. Ed proposes to violate both those taboos.

The first of Ed’s three proposals is a commitment to rigorous national standards that students would have to measure up to.

“Testing” has become a dirty word among those who deplore the No Child Left Behind Act’s emphasis on measuring results. But Romer said the problem isn’t that testing is bad, it’s that states each have their own tests, leading to a patchwork of standards. States should have a voice, he said, but testing should be uniform and directed at the federal level.

Secondly, the campaign advocates restructuring teacher pay to reward performance, needed skill areas and tough assignments. Teachers unions have resisted such initiatives over the years, but Romer said they are necessary to attract quality minds to the teaching profession, and keep them in it.

“We believe that needs to be done with the teachers — not to them, but with them,” Romer said. “And we believe it can be done.”

The third proposal is to lengthen the school year and the school day. Romer said part of the reason American students are statistically falling behind those in other nations is simply that the sheer quantity of education is less here. Other developed countries’ school years are an average of 10 days longer, he said.

Keeping schools open longer would cost money, Romer acknowledged. But he said the campaign wasn’t necessarily calling for increased spending, just saying how money should be spent.

Ed won’t endorse candidates or even grade them according to whether they agree with its approaches. Rather, organizers said, they want to put their provocative ideas before the presidential candidates and get them discussed.

“We’re trying to say to the candidates, ‘We want presidential leadership on this,'” Romer said in an interview with the Review-Journal’s editorial board. “We are saying, ‘We want you to come up with some answers.'”

Locally, the campaign has bipartisan bona fides. Joining Romer at Monday’s launch were state Sen. Barbara Cegavske, a Republican, along with County Commissioners Rory Reid and Lawrence Weekly and Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman, all Democrats.

Also listed as local supporters are Republicans such as Rep. Jon Porter, state Sen. Maurice Washington and Clark County Commissioners Bruce Woodbury and Chip Maxfield, along with Democrats including Rep. Shelley Berkley and former Sen. Richard Bryan.

Nationally, although it is chaired by a Democrat, the campaign’s executive director, Marc Lampkin, is a Republican who worked on George W. Bush’s 2000 campaign. Republican former House Speaker Newt Gingrich hasn’t formally endorsed the campaign, but he’s praised its ideas and has been talking with Romer of late, the chairman said.

The Ed campaign is focused on the four states, including Nevada, that are expected to have the most sway over the early phase of the presidential nominating process in January. It’s being funded with $60 million donated by two billionaire philanthropists, Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates and KB Home founder Eli Broad.

Organizers said the initiative’s activities would include deploying volunteers to political and community events, paid advertising and an online push. They’ve already started showing up in Nevada: On Saturday, volunteers canvassed outside the UNLV-Utah football game.

Supporters frame the debate in terms of America’s economic competitiveness. American children, they say, are increasingly ill equipped to compete with countries such as South Korea that are making big, aggressive strides, and in this digital age, foreigners can do many jobs as easily as Americans, regardless of location.

“The world’s work is going to be digitized and shipped all over the world,” Romer said. “The work of the world is going to go where they have the knowledge and skill to do it. And we’re slacking behind.”

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