Prioritizing Education Is a Smart Political Strategy

Like a lot of parents, we’ve spent the last four years trying to counterprogram the Trump presidency. Shortly before Election Day, we finished rewatching every episode of “The West Wing,” giving our son a look at how “real” presidents act. Others obviously had the same idea, with HBO deciding to air a reenactment of the great Hartsfield landing episode. That was the episode where President Bartlett (Sheen) resolves to stand up for education as more than an elitist issue. “Education can be the silver bullet for crime, poverty, unemployment, drugs, hatred,” he says.

Prioritizing education is as smart a political strategy today as it was when that episode first aired 18 years ago. It’s the key to being not just a great TV president, but a successful president in real life. That’s why Joe Biden should announce education as his first major policy initiative, even as he continues to battle the pandemic.

The political arguments for adopting such a strategy are both obvious and clear. It is both good offense and good defense. In 1992, facing a Senate runoff election in Georgia, then President-elect Bill Clinton made the tactical mistake of pushing for greater LGBTQ rights in the military. While it was a campaign promise and clearly the right moral decision, it had the unfortunate effect of energizing Southern social conservatives. Democrats lost that seat, and the tone was set for a divisive first term. Democrat Joe Biden has an opportunity to learn from this mistake, embrace education and cement his own reputation as a centrist.

Facing not one but two elections in Georgia next month, Joe Biden has a unique chance to mobilize the Democratic base without enraging social conservatives. The base will be energized by the Senate’s failure to pass a COVID-19 relief bill with protections for renters and the unemployed, but Democrats will need crossover votes from both women and Latinos to flip the Senate.

Women were fundamental to Democratic victories in 2018 and can be so again in the Georgia runoffs. In normal times, education consistently ranks at the top of the issue priorities for Democratic women, and it scores nearly as well with Republican women. Well-handled, it is the definition of an 80-20 issue. (Actually, 83 percent of adults ranked education as extremely important or very important in polling by Gallup.)

When Joe Biden told educators in his victory speech that they would have “one of your own” in the White House, it was not an accidental remark: Educators are among the most reliable donor groups for Democrats nationwide. They are the base of Biden’s base. Launching his presidency on education would be an important sign he intends to reward that loyalty.

For many women, the coronavirus crisis is not just a health care issue — it is an economic crisis. Women have been disproportionately impacted, as they have dropped out of the workforce in higher numbers to provide childcare to children forced home from school. Reopening schools — many of the nation’s largest districts remain closed — would serve as the first step in an economic recovery plan for all parents, and especially women.

Education is also essential to Democratic appeals to another core constituency: Latinos. Biden underperformed with Latinos nationwide, and education has historically been the top issue with this key demographic. By the way, Latinos form a key swing vote in many Sunbelt states like Georgia, where they are 5 percent of the electorate.

Following the November election, the second largest district in California released the San Diego plan for a nationwide recovery for our schools. The plan calls for a new investment in equity by tripling the Title 1 program, something Biden campaigned on. Equally, the plan urges the federal government to fund additional time with teachers for students who have been harmed by the crisis.

This is a contrast to many of the current discussions about closing the “digital divide.” Hardware solutions are always popular in Washington, D.C., but more computers will not help students recover from months spent online. That is why the Biden administration should embrace the San Diego plan. It is smart politics and smart policy, because education can be the silver bullet for crime, poverty, unemployment, drugs and hatred, in TV as in real life.

Andrew Sharp is the chief public information officer for the San Diego Unified School District.

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