Education issues have been discussed only in passing in the Republican presidential debates thus far, and that may be for good reason.

Schooling is fundamentally a state and local issue.

But the federal government has managed to worm its way into local affairs, particularly education. President Obama’s administration certainly isn’t the first to issue demands and threats to schools across the country. So it’s a matter presidential candidates must address.

There are undoubtedly several markers candidates can put down that will reveal their philosophy of education. While education tends to be a back-burner issue, it’s nonetheless important to parents—not to mention to the future of our country.

According to a poll conducted by the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice this summer, education ranked as the second-most important issue facing the nation, eclipsed only by the economy and jobs.

The survey found among “school parent” respondents, 56% believe K-12 education is on the “wrong track,” while only 39% believe it’s on the “right track.”

Among Republican respondents, the difference was even starker. There was a 41-point margin between right track/wrong track answers, with 68% of Republicans believing the system is heading in the wrong direction.

The results also reveal that parents strongly favor school choice and expanding options beyond the traditional government-run education system.

The Friedman survey found 63% of school parents favor government vouchers, which allow tax dollars to follow the child to the school of the parents’ choice, public or private.

Sixty-seven percent of “school parent” respondents also strongly support “education savings accounts.” ESAs are modeled after health savings accounts, and allow the consumer to use dollars to best meet their children’s very specific education needs.

And a strong plurality of school parents – 41% -- believe a voucher or ESA should be used to get kids out of failing schools. They don’t want the government to spend more to “fix” government schools. They just want more options, so they can enroll their kids in the schools that work best for them

Parents don’t believe increasing the role of the federal government in education will provide any answers. Among school parents, 75% rated federal management of K-12 matters “fair/poor” while only 22% said “good/excellent.”

Again, the contrast was sharper among Republican respondents. Only 15% said it was “good/excellent” while a whopping 79% said “fair/poor.”

Interestingly, Independents gave a worse grade—83% deemed the feds’ handling “fair/poor.” For an eventual Republican nominee looking to gain more of that crucial moderate vote, that’s something to keep in mind.

That same nominee should also understand that school choice is a winning issue among all racial groups.

A recent poll conducted for the American Federation of Children found 70% of Hispanics in Arizona support greater educational options for their kids. The survey also found in the congressional district represented by Democratic Rep. Raul Grivalja, 74% of Hispanics “support the idea of providing scholarships to children to attend a K-12 private school of their family’s choosing.”

A survey recently released by the Black Alliance for Educational Options finds African-American parents overwhelmingly embracing school choice, as well. The poll, taken in Alabama, Louisiana, New Jersey and Tennessee, revealed 60% of black voters said they support school vouchers.

So in the midst of a campaign, what can a candidate do to break through on education?

1. Declare an end the slow creep of the federal government into local classrooms—and mean it. The Obama administration bribed states to accept Common Core national standards. It has threatened to defund schools that refuse to allow transgender students to use the restroom/shower of their choice, regardless of their biological gender. Bureaucrats, prodded by Michelle Obama, have imposed a new school lunch menu that students are not eating, and increasingly not purchasing.

2. Embrace religious liberty and fight the eviction of Judeo-Christian values from schools. Secular progressives have taken over the system and are treating Christians as though they are non-citizens who have no right to practice their faith on public property. The Obama administration is aiding and abetting them. The U.S. Department of Justice should defend religious liberty, not attack it.

3. Use the presidential bully pulpit to endorse school choice and parent empowerment. Support the notion that parents are in charge—not bureaucrats, administrators, vendors or teachers unions. The federal government shouldn’t mandate choice—because that’s not its role—yet it support it in every way possible.

In short, school choice and empowering parents are winning issues among groups traditionally disinclined to support Republican candidates. It would be foolish for the party and its potential standard bearers to ignore the opportunity to make crucial inroads with minority voters.

Kyle Olson is founder of Education Action Group and EAGnews.org, a news service dedicated to education reform and school spending research, reporting, analysis and commentary.