Five questions the candidates need to be asked, immediately

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The following op-ed is cross-posted from Politico

By Arne Duncan

The presidential race has been ignoring education. That needs to stop.

The people who want to lead this country when President Obama leaves office have gathered eight times to debate issues that matter to Americans. They’ve argued over foreign policy, the economy and immigration.

But education – one of the most critical issues to the future of the United States – has been largely ignored.

Those other topics are important, certainly. As a nation, a strong military is our best defense, but our best offense is education—a great system that leads to success in college, careers, and life for all students, no matter their zip code. That’s the only way to ensure our economic future. And it matters not just in our choice of President, but in elections at every level.

Americans are used to thinking of their nation as a model for the world, so it might be surprising to realize how our education system is seen by our global competitors. Each year, we bring the education leaders of two dozen countries together for the International Summit on the Teaching Profession. Often, I am asked: Why doesn’t the United States value its children more? They point to our lack of investment in early childhood education and our low college completion rates. It’s heartbreaking.

In the coming year, America has the opportunity to start turning that reputation around by having an honest political debate on education.

I’ve often said that no political party has a monopoly on good ideas in education – left or right, Republican or Democratic. Imagine the possibilities if we have a genuine conversation about how to move forward as a country. This means pushing our candidates to tell us their plans for making sure students – particularly underserved students – can thrive.

There has been so much change in American classrooms in the last seven years, and the stage is set for even more progress. In many ways I have never been more hopeful, more encouraged by what lies ahead. This country has made incredible strides in the last seven years. High school graduation rates are at all-time highs, and the gap for traditionally underserved students graduating is narrowing. Dropout rates are down. An additional 1 million black and Latino students have enrolled in college. We are headed in the right direction, but we aren’t getting there fast enough.

The next administration will be critical to continuing that upward trend, yet we know very little about how the people who want to be president ensure that happens. With other countries passing us by, we don’t have any time to waste. We must do better, and we must get there faster.

But there is so little discussion of how that can play out in our electoral choices.

In fact, education has come up just a handful of times during the televised presidential debates, and none of the questions has gotten to the heart of how we as a country can move forward. It’s time to change that.

I want to be clear: The candidates aren’t solely to blame for the lack of discussion on education. We as voters are, also. We should demand more of the people running for office, from local to state to federal government. We – and reporters and analysts covering debates – should be asking: Why isn’t education – the foundation for economic prosperity in any country – a central issue in every political race?

It’s time for media outlets sponsoring presidential debates to step up to the challenge of holding candidates accountable for answering hard questions about education policy.

So what should they ask? Every candidate should be able to answer four basic questions about education, and then should be able to back up their proposals with how they plan to get them done. In the last few months, I have talked to multiple news outlets and encouraged them to ask the candidates the following:

  • Today we are 27th in the world in access to preschool. What’s your goal for preschool access in the next five years?
  • High school graduation rates are the highest ever at 82 percent, but they are not nearly high enough. What’s your goal for high school completion in the next five years?
  • Today, far too many students graduate high school and still need remedial classes in college. What’s your goal for true college readiness in the next five years?
  • A generation ago, we were the world leader in the college graduation rate of our young people; today, we are 13th. What’s your goal for the next five years?
  • Finally, for each of these goals, what are your concrete strategies to achieve them, and what financial resources and political capital are you willing to expend to get us there?

America deserves courageous, thoughtful leaders who are ready to push the country ahead rather than watch other countries pass us by each year. But so few politicians are willing to invest the resources and political capital required to move the needle on improving education. We must demand that the candidates tell us how their policy proposals and their budgets will improve educational attainment pre-k through college.

President Obama had the courage to push for what he believed was right, even at the risk of upsetting supporters of his own party. Who will be so bold in 2016?