Two of the nation’s most prominent education philanthropists are bankrolling a $60 million initiative aimed at making education an issue in the 2008 presidential campaign.

Philanthropists Bill Gates and Eli Broad are hoping their “Strong American Schools” project will goad the presidential candidates into taking bold stands on education–even if it means angering their own constituencies.

“We feel strongly that we had to wage a campaign to do two things: arouse the American people … and get them to see the need for reform in public education,” Broad said in an interview April 24.

The campaign, he said, will “try to get all the candidates to be interested in education, not let them get by with the pablum of ‘We need better schools and better teachers.'”

Broad and Gates have long been education benefactors, pumping money from their respective foundations into urban schools to promote student achievement. But this campaign, called “ED in ’08,” takes their advocacy to a new level.

Planners say the money will be used on the most advanced campaign tactics, from internet outreach to grassroots lobbying to national advertising.

The project takes no position on what the solutions should be, but its leadership sets three educational goals–national education standards, better pay for better teachers, and more time and support to help students learn.

The effort has tried to be scrupulously bipartisan, attracting, for instance, former Colorado Gov. Roy Romer, who was general chairman of the Democratic National Committee in 1997, and Ken Mehlman, who recently stepped down as chairman of the Republican National Committee.

“There is no issue that lends itself more to a bipartisan approach than education reform,” said Mehlman, who ran the GOP after managing President Bush’s 2004 re-election.

Broad, Mehlman, and Romer point to dropping graduation rates, increasing dropout rates, and an array of statistics that show the United States lagging other countries in student performance.

As chairman of the “ED in ’08” campaign, Romer has a Republican executive director, former Bush deputy campaign manager Marc Lampkin, and a staff culled from both party ranks. “It’s a new experience for me to be interviewing an employee, and when I ask ‘Who did you last report to?’ they say ‘Karl Rove,'” he said, referring to Bush’s senior political adviser.

Education was a top-tier issue in the 2000 presidential campaign and a central element of George W. Bush’s “compassionate conservative” agenda. It resulted, early in his presidency, in the bipartisan No Child Left Behind law that required schools to test students and to meet certain test-score thresholds. The law is up for renewal this year amid calls from some lawmakers to revamp it and from others to add more money to make it work properly.

But as a galvanizing political issue, education has been overwhelmed by the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and the war in Iraq. In their speeches, the 2008 presidential candidates are more likely to talk about foreign policy, energy, health care, or government spending.

In the past, efforts to devote more federal money to education initiatives have run into opposition from fiscal conservatives. Likewise, efforts to pay teachers based on performance have run up against some teachers’ unions.

“If we succeed, we’d get [education] high up in the domestic policy agenda to be as important as the environment and energy,” Broad said.

“We want to nail these candidates down to be specific,” he said. “Where are you on American standards? Where are you on effective teachers and how to compensate them? Where are you on a longer school year and longer school day, so our kids get the same number of academic hours they get in other countries?”

The Broad Foundation is based in Los Angeles and was established by Eli and Edythe Broad in 1999 to improve urban public education. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, with an endowment of $33 billion, is the largest philanthropic foundation in the world. It focuses on global health, poverty, hunger, and education.