Campaign 2008: Education Briefing
Advisors Stake Out McCain, Obama's Positions

Pointer  Online Extra

October/November 2008

By Alexander Berger and Jennifer Stedron

John McCain and Barack Obama share a vision for improving education. Both presidential candidates say they back high-quality teachers and have plans for recruiting, keeping and paying them. They want to address other issues, including special education funding, No Child Left Behind and performance pay for teachers.

But, not surprisingly, the devil is in the details.

Education advisers to McCain and Obama laid out details of their platforms and their effect on states before a standing-room only crowd at the National Conference of State Legislatures’ annual gathering in New Orleans in July. Lisa Graham Keegan, a former Arizona state representative and education chief, spoke for McCain, while Stanford professor Linda Darling-Hammond represented Obama.

McCain “is looking to provide states with dollars so they can recruit the top 25 percent of graduates from any subject area,” Keegan said, and would offer teachers more money for working in challenging schools and subjects. He also backs programs that pay teachers more for improving student test scores.

Obama promises that “if you commit your life to teaching, America will pay for your college education,” Darling-Hammond said. He’ll do that with Teaching Service Scholarships to cover undergraduate education or graduate teacher preparation for top students who agree to work for at least four years in a hard-to-staff school or subject. Obama also has proposed letting districts and teachers come up with a pay plan that takes into account student test results and other performance indicators.

When it came to the role of the federal government in K-12 education, there was some friction, particularly over money.

Obama believes the federal government’s role is to “assert some directional leadership but to be respectful of innovation as it occurs in states and localities, rather than a one-size-fits-all approach,” Darling-Hammond said. Obama would double educational research and development, and offer $18 billion a year in new federal funds for early childhood and K-12 education, she said. As far as the No Child Left Behind Act, Obama would keep rules for measuring student progress and continue funding programs for at-risk students and those learning English, but would rethink other sections.

Keegan took a different tack.

“Were it not for the dire circumstances in the country, it would be easy to say this is simply a states’ rights issue,” she said. “But when it looks so similar in every state, and we can predict by wealth and race who’s going to do well in an American school, we’ve got a federal problem on our hands.”

McCain would confront this problem by enforcing existing requirements of equal standards and assessments for all students, which Keegan lauded. She said he would keep education spending at the current level, arguing that more money does not necessarily lead to better-educated students. Instead, McCain calls for fiscal discipline and more effective use of funds already provided for tutoring and professional development.

On the issue of special education funding, Keegan said McCain supports the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, which guarantees an appropriate education for students with disabilities. He believes its services can be concentrated where they are most needed if students who are incorrectly placed in special education return to regular classrooms.

Darling-Hammond said Obama has promised to fully fund the act, while noting McCain has voted repeatedly against funding for special education and Head Start programs, which deliver the early education services that prevent unnecessary placement in special education.

The candidates agree with the NCSL Standing Committee on Education’s position regarding No Child Left Behind’s formula for measuring schools’ annual progress. According to Darling-Hammond, “We’re now on track for almost every public school in the United States to be declared failing by 2014,” as a result of the current model.

The candidates would follow the committee’s recommendation to replace the formula, which requires an increase in the number of students scoring at grade level each year, with one that takes into account individual academic improvement.

Alexander Berger is an NCSL intern. Jennifer Stedron works on education issues for NCSL.

 Leadership (noun) October/November 2008 Article