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For All Those Undecided School Choice Voters Out There

By Alyson Klein — October 31, 2008 2 min read
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The Center for Education Reform has a new voter’s guide out just for you. The Center is a Washington-based nonprofit that advocates for expanding school choice, so they’re obvious cheerleaders for charters and vouchers. They also give lawmakers high marks for supporting accountability, including No Child Left Behind.

Whether you agree with the Center’s agenda, or thoroughly disagree with it, their guide is worth looking at. It examines the candidates’ views on charters, vouchers, teacher pay-for-performance, and NCLB. And it explores what each campaign’s team of advisers says about the candidate.

I found their take on charters particularly interesting. They draw a pretty sharp distinction between the two contenders’ proposals, saying that Obama’s plan to double funding for charter schools does not necessarily mean good news for charter schools.

Senator Obama has not said he supports such laws. He says he supports doubling federal funding for "responsible charters", but whether that definition depends on local input of unions or school board approval remains to be seen. We know many in the Obama camp believe in strong laws, but they are not the ones whose views have prevailed in this campaign. The one bill he voted for as a state senator increased the cap, but also imposed union and additional regulations on charter schools. The official website says that an Obama-Biden administration would provide expanded charter school funding only to states that improve accountability for charter schools, allow for interventions in struggling charter schools and have a clear process for closing failing schools. The reality is that every strong law in the nation has such processes in place and they are working, but they rely on authorizers and not on traditional state bureaucracies, which is what the Obama language would do once such a requirement is made at the federal level.

In the center’s view, McCain’s plan is a better since it focuses on using parental choice and high standards to drive the charter movement. And, the center says, his plan would put states, not the federal government, in the “driver’s seat” when it comes to charters.

The group is also pretty skeptical of Obama’s pay-for-performance for teachers. It is worried about some of the folks Obama has put on his education policy team, namely, Linda Darling-Hammond, a Stanford education professor.

When it comes to the people who surround these two candidates, many reformers—even Obama insiders—are highly critical of Obama's chief education advisor, Linda Darling-Hammond. While they disregard the criticism and suggest that it's Obama in the end who'll make the decision, it's clear that on every issue relating to education, Darling-Hammond is far from a reformer. She has a clear and proud record of supporting the existing track for training and paying teachers, and believes governance changes—like charter schools—are a side issue. Yes, there are young, wise and fresh people who also have been invited in from time to time to speak on Obama's behalf, and to show people in the know that he does have an open mind outside of the establishment.

The Center seems to think that folks like Darling-Hammond are likely to have more pull in a Obama administration than others he has advising his campaign. “It is the party insiders and those who have held the titles that make the most difference,” the voter’s guide says.

A lot people would disagree. Sure, Obama’s advisers are Dems from across a broad spectrum of education policy, and its tough to tell exactly where he stands on education from just looking at the line-up.

But I don’t think anyone can say for sure which advisers would serve in his administration—and which issues each would dominate on. Optimistic Democrats think this group will be able to bridge the divides within the party on education policy.

The Center’s report is much more supportive of McCain’s circle of advisers, the most visible of which is Lisa Graham Keegan, the former Arizona schools chief. They say the McCain group is made up of people “who unequivocally know what good laws look like and how people can influence a candidate.”

You can also check out the Center’s guides on the Senate and gubernatorial races. The guides give the candidates’ scores and star the ones they consider “real reformers.” Although their presidential analysis seems to lean towards McCain, the other guides give high (and low) marks to members of both parties.You can download it here.