WASHINGTON – While schools across the country are letting out this week, class is in session on the National Mall. That is where the College Board set up 857 student desks in the blazing sun Tuesday.
The empty desks — one for each student who drops out each hour of every school day, according to the College Board — are part of its "Don't Forget Ed!" campaign. For the launch Wednesday, College Board representatives including college-aged students will circle the seats on the Mall, asking passersby to sign petitions urging the presidential candidates to say more about education reform.
One of those students is Merone Tesfaye, 18, who will attend the University of Wisconsin in the fall.
"This is supposed to be the land of opportunity, and most people don't pursue a secondary education, because they can't afford it," said Tesfaye, who will take the train from New York City to Washington, D.C., to help kick off the campaign.
The number of desks is derived from a statistic reported by Education Week in 2007 saying that 1.2 million students drop out every year.
The campaign is the College Board's first venture into the world of politics, though its vice president of communications, Peter Kauffmann, assured that they are not endorsing any candidates.
"Really, this is about rallying the American public," Kauffmann said.
In addition to the desk demonstration, College Board will run an advertisement in the New York Times promoting its message.
The ad asserts that the education system in America is "crumbling," the same word President Barack Obama used on Thursday to describe schools in a speech on the economy in Cleveland.
Obama referenced education 28 times in that speech, but the issue was overshadowed by talk of job creation, taxes and the economy.
"Now's the time to move forward and make sure we have the best-educated, best-trained workers in the world," Obama said.
In a speech to the Latino Coalition in Washington, D.C., in May, Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney said the country was in "a national education emergency."
"The only reason we don't hear more about it is because our economic troubles have taken our national attention away from the classroom," Romney said. "But if unemployment was where it should be and home values were going up, there is no question that the crisis in American education would be the great cause of this campaign."
Both Obama and Romney have said they support maintaining the current low interest rate on federal student loans. The rate for new loans is scheduled to double on July 1 unless Congress takes action.
Tom Loveless, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, said education has not been an issue of interest to voters on the national level since the 2000 race between George W. Bush and Al Gore, and he does not expect that to change this year, mainly because of the small role the federal government plays in determining education policy.
Loveless said both candidates are likely to stay away from the education issue, because deep divisions within their parties mean taking a stand could lose support.
In the Republican Party, some conservatives back what Loveless called "school accountability." That is the idea that schools should receive praise for demonstrated academic success and face penalties for poor performance. For example, a conservative Wisconsin-based think tank published a study in January proposing that compensation for teachers be based on a school's ability to meet measurable objectives.
But to win over conservatives a potential president must "reduce the federal role as much as possible," according to Lindsey Burke, education fellow at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank.
The only place for the federal government in education, Burke said, is the D.C. school-choice voucher program, which the Obama administration agreed to fund for another year on Monday.
Burke said even liberals agree that the federal government should move away from far-reaching programs like No Child Left Behind.
"Where we see a difference is what we do moving forward," Burke said.
Though Burke wanted to see Washington moving out of education, she had no problem with candidates speaking about their plans for it.
On the subject of education she advocated "as much public discourse as possible."
The Don't Forget Ed! campaign will also include a public service advertisement, disbursement of stickers and postcards, a website and a social media push.
The College Board is an association with members representing more than 6,000 educational organizations. It offers standardized tests like the SATs, among other educational services.