"If people like their local schools, regardless of what they think about schools nationally, they're not going to be very likely to vote based on that issue," says Matt Chingos, a senior fellow at the Urban Institute. "They're not going to vote for someone just because that candidate is going to fix a problem with someone else's schools."
The Obama administration, for example, has tried to remedy the faults of the punitive No Child Left Behind Act by allowing states to get out from under its most stringent requirements by issuing waivers that trade in the law's strings for a state's buy-in to certain preferred reforms, such as tying teachers' evaluations partially to student test scores.
Now, Congress is trying to reconcile two very different bills that would update the law, but if that doesn't happen, those waivers can be pulled as soon as the next president steps into office. So a parent might not look to the presidential election and wonder how the candidates might affect their own child's education in the long term.
But the trajectory of education law since then has made it harder to do, because the federal government's role became punitive with the passage of Bush's No Child Left Behind Act, Jennings said. No Child Left Behind tied federal funding for schools with regular standardized testing, and has an escalating set of fixes for schools that are deemed to be failing by those metrics. That switch, Jennings says, makes it harder to run on education like Clinton or Bush did. Obama has kept many of No Child Left Behind's stringencies.
And even if the issues might sound negative, Chingos added that education tends to be an issue of major bipartisan agreement, something that might prevent it from rising to the level of a presidential campaign. “We’ve seen some attention from the Republican side on Common Core, because the candidates don’t agree, but more generally, there’s less disagreement between the political parties on K-12 education than there used to be,” Chingos said.
A recent case study from the conservative think tank the American Enterprise Institute found that nominees weren't too receptive to Ed in '08's overtures, and that it was difficult to get education questions asked at debates. A few years after the campaign ended, the paper notes, its website was shut down, and "by July 2009 it was as if Ed in '08 had never existed."
Brown herself conceded that the history of attempts to get people to vote on national education isn’t on her side. "Education should have been a huge part of the conversation in the last several presidential elections," Brown said in an interview. "Last cycle you had Obama and Romney who agreed on a lot of stuff, so it wasn’t controversial enough to rise to the level to be a part of the debate."
Even the American Enterprise Institute paper noted that while Ed in '08 failed, it laid the groundwork for future education campaigns. And Brown thinks this time will be different. "This cycle, there's a lot happening that puts it front and center," she said. "This election has the potential to be much more about education than previous ones, because you have candidates who understand the influence it has."
FOR THE RECORD: An earlier version of this article stated that Chingos works at the Manhattan Institute. He works at the Urban Institute.