In Alabama’s recent special Senate election, the progressive group Priorities USA was looking for ways to lift African-American voter turnout. So Priorities tested several different advertisements, to see which ones made people want to vote.
There was no shortage of potential ad material in Alabama. Roy Moore, the Republican nominee, had a trail of bigoted statements and alleged sexual molestation. Doug Jones, the Democrat, had prosecuted Ku Klux Klansmen for murder. Priorities tested each of these themes and others, too: Moore’s ties to white supremacists; Moore’s closeness to President Donald Trump; Jones’ endorsements from civil-rights leaders.
Yet none of these tested as well as a 15-second ad that never mentioned Moore.
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“My kids are going to do more than just survive the bigotry and hatred,” a female narrator says, as the video shows a Klan march and then a student at a desk. “They’re going to get an education, start a business, earn a good living, make me proud. Education is my priority. That’s why I’m voting for Doug Jones.”
The test results surprised the leaders of Priorities, and no wonder: We’re supposed to be living in a time of education skepticism. The media regularly run stories suggesting education is overrated. K-12 schools are said to be in a never-ending crisis, and college debt has become a new crisis. A much-discussed Pew Research Center poll recently found a jump in the number of people saying colleges had a negative effect on the country.
In truth, though, Americans’ attitudes toward education are much simpler than all of this noise suggests – just as that Alabama ad test found. Whatever complaints people may have about their local school or college costs, most have no doubt that their children need a good education. People see it as the most reliable path to a good life, and they are right.
The unemployment rate for college graduates is a mere 2.3 percent. College graduates earn vastly more than non-graduates. Educational gaps in life expectancy and health status are growing too.
When you start to dig into the education skepticism, you find that much of it collapses. Those journalists and academics publicly questioning the value of education? Many are desperately trying to get their own children into strong school systems and colleges. Their skepticism apparently applies only to other people’s kids.
And that Pew poll? It was legitimate but misunderstood. The rise in negative feelings toward colleges came largely among Republicans, many of whom see campuses as bastions of liberalism. Yet those Republicans still want their children to attend college. They understand that the benefits of education outweigh any risks of lefty brainwashing.
Last week, I asked the research group Morning Consult to conduct a poll on education. The main question gave parents a list of schooling levels – high school, community college, four-year college – and asked which they wanted their own children to attain. The results were overwhelming: 74 percent chose four-year college, and another 9 percent chose community college. The progressive think tank Demos recently commissioned its own poll that found strikingly similar support for increased higher-education funding.
The popularity of education offers a giant opportunity to politicians. It’s a chance to talk about something other than Trump – and be heard. Many voters, understandably, care more about their lives and their children’s future than about Stormy Daniels or Jared Kushner.
Conor Lamb, the Pennsylvania Democrat, just won in a heavily Republican district by focusing relentlessly on his constituents, not Trump. Education was one of his themes. He told voters he was bothered that his brother and sister – both teachers – didn’t receive the gratitude that he did for being a Marine.
Given the passions of the Trump era, this isn’t the moment to settle for the modest, technocratic education proposals that Democrats often favor. It’s a time for big, ambitious ideas.
In education, that means universal preschool, which would address both inequality and child-care needs, and universal tuition-free community college. A century ago, the United States led the world toward universal high school, and today’s economy demands more than a high-school diploma. Community colleges are part of the answer, and are also a common pathway to four-year degrees. Importantly, free tuition there isn’t a huge subsidy for the upper middle class and the affluent, who typically start at four-year colleges.
I was glad to see New Jersey’s new Democratic governor, Phil Murphy, propose free community college and expanded pre-K for his state last week. And these ideas don’t need to be partisan. Tennessee’s Republican governor, Bill Haslam, has made his state’s community colleges tuition-free, while Georgia and Oklahoma have been pre-K leaders.
Sometimes, good policy and good politics align quite nicely. The single best bet that a society or an individual can make – education – also turns out to be the rare idea that transcends today’s partisan divide.