Disillusioned with the pace of reform in America's public schools, two of the country's leading education philanthropists have tapped ex-Los Angeles schools chief and former Colorado Gov. Roy Romer to head a campaign aimed at forcing education into the forefront of the 2008 presidential campaign.
The charitable foundations controlled by Microsoft founder Bill Gates and Los Angeles billionaire Eli Broad have committed up to $60 million to the nonpartisan initiative, which organizers say will be run with the tactics and aggressiveness of the presidential campaigns they will hound in the run-up to next year's elections.
"We've been involved in education reform for seven, eight, nine years," Broad said of the two foundations, which together have spent hundreds of millions of dollars on education reform. "We feel good about what we've accomplished, but it's been very incremental. We think it's time to rouse the American public. They need a wake-up call."
Romer, 78, who ended a six-year tenure as superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District late last year, will head the Strong American Schools campaign. His success in getting new schools built and raising test scores in Los Angeles, along with his three terms as governor of Colorado and stint as chairman of the Democratic National Committee, made the straight-talking elder statesman an obvious choice, Broad said.
Navigating the politics, public scrutiny and bureaucracy that come with running the nation's second-largest school system "prepares you for a lot of things," Romer quipped. "Including a tour in Vietnam."
As a charitable effort, the Strong American Schools' "Ed in '08" campaign cannot legally endorse candidates or specific legislation -- including the controversial federal No Child Left Behind Act that emphasizes standardized testing and sets tough performance benchmarks for schools.
Instead, the group plans to use television, radio and print ads in battleground states, an Internet-driven campaign aimed at drumming up volunteers, and influence within both major political parties to pressure candidates to focus on three education issues. They are: Uniform academic standards for all states; better recruitment of qualified teachers into high-need areas; and longer school days and years to increase instructional time for students.
"We cannot have the way we teach fourth-grade math change 50 times in 50 states," Romer said, adding that the group supports the idea of increased pay for teachers who get results in low-performing schools or who can help fill the shortfall in science and math positions.
Romer launched the campaign at a press conference in South Carolina on Wednesday, a day before the first Democratic Party debate there. A similar rollout is expected next month when the first Republican debate is held in Simi Valley.
Bill Carrick, a Democratic political consultant who has worked on national campaigns, said the financial backing of the effort was unprecedented and could have a "profound effect" on the presidential race.
Candidates "are going to have to respond to this," Carrick said, pointing out that $60 million is more than even front-running candidates will probably spend on communication efforts. "If you go over the heads of candidates and talk directly to voters about education, it will have an impact."
Unveiling the campaign so early in the race, Carrick said, is wise. "They want to get into the fabric of the debate as soon as they can," he said.
Underscoring the group's bipartisan nature are two Republican political operatives. Marc Lampkin, President George W. Bush's deputy campaign manager in 2000, is the group's executive director, and Ken Mehlman, who ran Bush's reelection campaign in 2004, is a board member.
Romer, Broad and Allan C. Golston, head of the Gates Foundation's U.S. endeavors, pointed to high dropout rates, declining test scores and other signs that American students are falling behind those from other countries in calling for education to have a place alongside the war in Iraq, terrorism and other major campaign issues.
"We do not want the pablum from candidates of 'It's a big priority and we need better schools,' " Broad said. "We want to nail them down on specific issues."