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Obama/McCain Advisers Debate Again, Some More

By Alyson Klein — July 24, 2008 2 min read
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This seems to be a recurring theme on our blog this week.

Today the forum was the New America Foundation, a Washington-based think tank and the advisers were the Ubiquitous Lisa Graham Keegan, a former Arizona schools chief, appearing on behalf of Sen. John McCain’s campaign, and Jon Schnur, who heads up New Leaders for New Schools and is informally advising the Sen. Barack Obama’s campaign (along with just about every other Education Dem).

Neither covered much new territory on K-12 education, and neither one seemed eager to address the 800- pound gorilla in the room: No Child Left Behind. At one point, Keegan sounded incredulous that nearly every question she’s asked on the campaign trail “pivots around NCLB” as if that is “the universe of education.”

For an inside-the-Beltway education reporter like me, the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act pretty much is the “universe of education” since that’s the main federal lever for shaping K-12 policy. But maybe I’m too Washington-focused or maybe it’s just too complex or too much of a political hot potato to talk about on the campaign trail. Anyway, there were no mentions today of deadlines, or sanctions, or staggered testing, or anything else for which the devil is in the details. But both reiterated their candidate’s support for some federal accountability based around testing, and Schnur talked up Obama’s plans to improve the quality of assessments.

The advisers had a more substantive discussion on pre-K than I had heard up to this point. Schnur reiterated Obama’s plan to invest about $10 billion annually in pre-K programs. Keegan said McCain is likely to be more specific on the issue soon. But she also said that pre-K programs need to have “linguistically complex” people serving as teachers. It sounded to me like she was leaving open the door for some sort of quality measure (maybe even tests?) for pre-K educators. Stay tuned on that one. It’s sure to prove controversial, especially if there’s no corresponding salary increase.

The best moment of the forum (for me at least) came courtesy of James Kohlmoos, the president of Knowledge Alliance. He asked Schnur and Keegan to fast-forward to 2012 and assume their candidate were running for re-election. What would the candidates tout as their greatest education accomplishment of their first term?

Keegan said she hoped McCain would be able to claim to have “changed the culture of the teaching profession” to attract some of the brightest minds into the classroom, while Schnur said that “four years” is not a long time and that Obama would have just begun to implement his policies, but would have hopefully been able to build a coalition around his ideas.