Can Putting 857 Desks on the National Mall Get Education on the Election Agenda?

Posted by Liz Dwyer

arne.duncan.desks
Can lining 857 student desks up on the National Mall in Washington D.C. get our presidential candidates to make education central to their campaigns? That was the goal of an attention-getting art installation put in place on Tuesday and Wednesday this week by the College Board as part of the kickoff of their nonpartisan "Don't Forget Ed!" campaign. According to their calculations, the desks represent the number of students who drop out of school every hour of every school day.

Despite the large numbers of dropouts, "every four years, the issue of education is shockingly underplayed on the campaign trail," says College Board president Gaston Caperton. Indeed, while there's certainly been plenty of political theater over student loan interest rates, when it comes to really addressing education, this election season is playing out pretty much like every other—candidates speak in broad terms about the issue. The irony is, given all the focus on fixing the economy, it makes sense for the candidates to place education front and center.

It's well known that students who don't earn high school diplomas have the nation's highest unemployment rates and cost the economy billions through lost tax revenue and the expense of providing social services. Research shows that schools can identify potential dropouts as early as sixth grade, because they're the kids who are behind academically, are frequently absent, and misbehave in school.

Although, the White House surely wants to address the dropout crisis—Secretary of Education Arne Duncan even paid the installation a visit—in his 2012 State of the Union address President Obama's solution was to "require that all students stay in high school until they graduate or turn 18." That get-tough idea hasn't gained much traction since then because it doesn't actually set in motion specific actions to help schools identify and support students who are at risk of leaving. Mitt Romney hasn't offered much in the way of solutions, either. Instead he recently caused a kerfluffle by suggesting that the federal government should cut back on the number of teachers.

Don't Forget About Ed! wants "candidates all over the country to tell voters precisely how they would reverse the sharp decline of American education," says Caperton. And they're not looking for empty rhetoric, either. During the installation, a street team armed with iPads gathered signatures from passersby on a petition that says, "If you want my support, I need to hear more from you about how you plan to fix the problems with education. And not just the same old platitudes. I want to know that you have real, tangible solutions, and that once in office, you’re ready to take serious action. I’ll be watching your acceptance speech at your party’s convention." 

That said, the College Board says they're not about criticizing candidates or promoting specific policies. They just want to mobilize students, parents, teachers, and community members and ensure that education is given the attention it rightfully deserves.

Want to hold those politicians' feet to the fire? Then sign the petition online

Photo via The College Board