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A Debate With a Little More Spice

By Alyson Klein — September 16, 2008 1 min read
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So the gloves are finally coming off. Kinda.

I’ve been to a number of head-to-head policy debates between various members of Team Obama and Sen. John McCain’s go-to-guru on education issues, Lisa Graham Keegan, a former Arizona schools chief. And they have always been very collegial, with a lot of ‘my candidate would do this-and-so’ as opposed to direct critiques of the other candidate’s record or proposals.

But on Monday, during a dinner at the Aspen Institute’s seminar on federal education policy in Washington, Keegan and Jon Schnur, co-director of New Leaders for New Schools, actually had something resembling a lively debate.

Instead of just talking about McCain’s support of accountability and testing, Keegan criticized Sen. Barack Obama for failing to support performance pay tied to test scores. Schnur repeated the Democratic nominee’s proposal to permit school districts to make merit pay linked to student achievement part of an alternative-pay plan. And he asked why McCain’s plan didn’t include any new resources for schools. Keegan explained that the sputtering economy would make it tough for the Republican nominee to promise big increases for education, but she said McCain would target resources to programs that are likely to be effective (such as merit pay).

Still, the debate remained very civil--and very much on the issues--a welcome change of pace from last week’s attack ads.

During the event yesterday, I also got a chance to talk to another Obama adviser, Linda Darling-Hammond, an education professor at Stanford University. I asked her about the claim some folks have made that there are some major ideological differences among Obama’s education advisers. She disagreed, saying that inside the campaign, work is very collaborative. Those who say there are disagreements are looking through “an external lens,” she added.

I wonder if that spirit of cooperation would hold true under a President Obama administration.