Pop back in history and count the number of times education was mentioned as a top campaign issue in 1984, then pop back to the present and do the same count.
Silence, mostly, 12 years ago. As loud as a talk radio show today.
A decade ago, education barely registered when it came time to campaign. Most of the country adhered to the old cliche "Education is too important to be left to the politicians," said Larry Hepburn, an educational policy researcher at the Carl Vinson Institute of Government in Athens, Ga.
Now the candidates see education as too important to their races to be left alone.
"It's probably either the second or third most-talked about topic that he discusses," said Stuart Roy, spokesman for U.S. Senate candidate Guy Millner, in a typical response from several campaigns. Mr. Millner is seeking the Georgia senate seat now held by Sam Nunn.
And it's probably one of the less-dangerous issues to bring up to a public hungry for improvement in its educational system, Dr. Hepburn says.
"It's always a safe issue for politicians to take up because it really can't hurt you," Dr. Hepburn said. "It's easy to take a stand on public education because there's nothing that's going to come back and bite you."
Consider several ideas for improving education from candidates in races important to the Augusta-Aiken area:
The first item on a list of ideas provided by the Dole-Kemp campaign is, Attend a safe school.
Parents, communities and school boards should have control of local elementary and secondary schools, says Tom Eisenhower, spokesman for Max Cleland's U.S. Senate campaign. Virtually every candidate says this.
The U.S. Department of Education is unnecessary, say Mr. Millner and most Republican candidates including Mr. Dole, U.S. Rep. Lindsay Graham, R-S.C., and U.S. Sen. Strom Thurmond, R-S.C. Mr. Cleland supports combing the education department with the U.S. Labor Department. Other candidates, such as Ms. Dorn, support keeping it as is.
Funding student loans should be a top priority, says David Bell, candidate for the U.S. House seat held by Charlie Norwood, R-Augusta. Ms. Dorn says the same, as does Mr. Graham, Mr. Cleland, Mr. Thurmond's opponent Elliot Close and so on.
Whether you agree the ideas are interesting, necessary or hot air, none is likely to make the blood boil.
"Education has become part of another issue and that is the issue of just what is the role of government in America," Dr. Hepburn said.
In the 1996 races, especially, the main debate about education policy is how much control the federal government should have versus the local school boards or state legislatures.
Candidates bicker about dissolving the U.S. Department of Education versus expanding federal programs. Politicians argue about using federal tax dollars to pay for private schools. Opponents proclaim their steadfast belief that more money should go to the classrooms.
In the national campaigns, a large split on educational issues comes in college tuition costs and helping more students enter higher education.
Mr. Clinton's proposals includes a national HOPE scholarship similar to Georgia's program and making $10,000 a year in college tuitions tax-deductible. High school students in the top 5 percent of their class would receive $1,000 college grants under Mr. Clinton's plans.
Mr. Dole's campaign mailed an attack paper - "Bill Clinton's Alliance with the NEA" - as a cover sheet when asked for examples of Mr. Dole's ideas on education. The NEA is the National Education Association, a teacher's union whose influence Mr. Dole decries.
The GOP packet does include specific ideas for improving education, such as a special scholarship, or voucher, for low- and middle-income children to attend the school of their choice - public, private or religious schools. Children in grades kindergarten through 8 would receive $1,000 - $500 from federal funds, $500 from state funds - and high school students would get $1,500 - $750 from federal and $750 from state.
In the U.S. Senate and House races, details aren't as specific and generally fall along basic ideological lines.
Support school choice programs that don't include vouchers, as Mr. Cleland says. Support school choice programs that depend upon vouchers, as Mr. Millner says. Use performance-based raises for teachers instead of automatic increase, Mr. Close says.
The candidates and their aides say they are continually surprised at the number of people who ask about education issues first during campaign rallies or events. It's not that they don't realize people worry about schools, they say, but that in the past politicians for seats in the federal government typically weren't as pressed about education.
"You think of it ... in terms of something at the local level," said Stuart Roy, spokesman for Mr. Millner.
But the economy has changed, so has education's importance in politics, so much so that Caroline Adelman, Georgia spokeswoman for the Clinton-Gore campaign, says she believes there will be a day when education - not money - will be the No. 1 issue in all races.
Already, "It's probably up there about even with the budget and the deficit," said Mr. Bledsloe, Ms. Dorn's spokesman. "It's just key to almost everything, jobs, family, security, all sorts of things."