Associated Press/Photo by LM Otero

Making the grade?

Back to School | Barack Obama and John McCain try to convince Americans that their vastly different education proposals would pass instead of fail

Issue: "Two-ring circus," Sept. 6, 2008

On the presidential race, Nathan Miller has already made up his mind: He will vote for Barack Obama.

Miller, a high-school English teacher in Apple Valley, Minn., recently penned Teaching in Circles, a memoir he said "explores what compels me to stick with teaching and what is trying to drive me away."

Obama is offering more solutions that address the latter, Miller said: "John McCain seems to see that the problems with public education lie within the schools and that the solutions are to be found outside the schools. Obama seems to be suggesting more solutions that work inside the schools that would reach kids who are struggling."

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Miller, a registered Democrat in his 11th year of teaching, said the kids who struggle most "are those who don't come from healthy homes in the first place. McCain's idea that giving parents more control and more school choices doesn't actually solve the underlying problem of uninvolved parents."

Birmingham dad Bert Spence sees the situation differently. Asked which presidential candidate has the better policy prescription for America's ailing public schools, Spence said, "Neither."

There is "absolutely nothing" either candidate can do to repair the public education mess, said Spence, an attorney whose 7-year-old daughter attends a private Montessori school. "Washington is the wrong place to deal with this issue. . . . While I generally favor local government over central government, no amount of 'returning power to the states' would solve the underlying problem." Not only is education not an executive issue, Spence said, but no matter how many campaign promises presidential candidates make, it always turns out that a president "has little, if any, ability to influence the education bureaucracy."

Neither, apparently, does federal education spending, which has leapt 40 percent to nearly $500 billion since 2001, the first year of the Bush 43 presidency. Still, in 2006, one in three fourth-graders and one in four eighth-graders scored "below basic" in reading, according to the National Assessment of Education Project, the nation's "report card." The national dropout rate hovers at 27 percent, with even more dismal rates among minority students: In 2006, only six in 10 black and Hispanic students exited high school with a diploma.

Obama and McCain differ sharply on who is in the best position to fix this mess. At the widely watched "civil forum" held Aug. 16 at Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, Calif., McCain emphatically endorsed school choice: "Choice and competition, homeschooling, charter schools, vouchers. . . . I want every American family to have the same choice that Cindy and I made and Senator Obama and Mrs. Obama made as well, and that was, we wanted to send our children to the school of our choice," McCain said. "And charter schools work, my friends. Homeschooling works. Vouchers in our nation's capital work."

McCain's proposals are tightly grouped around accountability, competition, local control, and the use of existing federal funds. He would commit significant Title II funds to teacher recruitment and professional development; return spending power to school principals; boost parents' ability to access outside tutoring for struggling students; and develop alternative instructional tools such as online learning. McCain would also enhance the D.C. voucher program and, presumably, school choice programs of similar design. While shorter on specifics than Obama's proposals, the Arizona senator seems to offer a set of core principles, a kind of executive rudder for education policy in a McCain administration.

By contrast Obama's 15-page, single-spaced plan details new federal programs that would pour billions into shepherding every child from birth to college. A centerpiece of the Illinois senator's education plan is a "Pre-School Agenda that Begins at Birth" that would expand on "patchwork" efforts in the states, fully federalizing involvement in children's lives from ages zero to 3. Obama would commit $10 billion to early childhood programs including universal voluntary preschool and $200 million to states and districts that want to extend the K-12 school day.

"Sen. McCain's proposals reflect a belief that decisions should be made closer to the student and that parents should be empowered," said Heritage Foundation senior education policy analyst Dan Lips. Obama's plan, meanwhile, would be "very expensive," he added. "We've been trying to solve things from Washington for 40 years, but ever-increasing spending hasn't increased student performance."

Both candidates support continuing the Bush administration's No Child Left Behind (NCLB) program, though with stark differences. Obama calls NCLB a "broken promise" to children that has "demoralized our teachers" and needs "fundamental" change. Obama would move away from assessments that test student mastery of fundamentals to broader testing of "higher-order skills" such as students' ability to use technology, conduct research, and present and defend ideas. He would also remove NCLB's big stick: the accountability measures that force change in failing schools. Instead, Obama advocates "an accountability system that supports schools to improve . . . rather than focuses on punishments."


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