For the first time in the 2008 presidential campaign, John McCain and Barack Obama engaged in a sustained, serious discussion about education--something they’ve done via press releases, or through their advisers, but never face to face.
But even after moderator Bob Schieffer devoted the last question of the third and final presidential debate, at Hofstra University, to how to improve education, voters still don’t have much of an idea of what either candidate would do with the central K-12 education policy of the federal government: the No Child Left Behind Act.
Instead, the two candidates hit highlights from their stump speeches. Obama talked of his support for early childhood education, a $4,000 college tuition tax credit, and parental responsibility. McCain talked about the importance of choice and competition, and the need for more alternative teacher-recruitment programs such as Teach for America.
You can read the transcript of their exchange here, including some brief references to NCLB. (Obama reiterated a popular phrase that it was the money “left behind,” while McCain said it was a “great first beginning.” He also said the law should be reauthorized.)
Some other highlights of their education answers:
--McCain focused mostly on his support for charter schools as he argued for school choice, and brought up private school vouchers only after Obama did. (McCain’s school choice proposal is to expand the federal voucher program in the District of Columbia by $7 million.)
--The subject of vouchers elicited one of Obama’s strongest lines: “The centerpiece of Sen. McCain’s education policy is to increase the voucher program in D.C. by 2,000 slots. That leaves all of you who live in the other 50 states without an education reform policy from Sen. McCain.”
--Washington Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee, who is not the most popular with the teachers’ union in the nation’s capital right now for her support of a pay-for-performance plan, has a fan in Obama, who called her a wonderful, new superintendent. McCain said that Rhee supports the federal voucher program for her city, too.
--McCain talked a lot in the debate about autism awareness, emphasizing that his running mate, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, knows about that issue “better than most.” But Palin’s infant son, Trig, has Down syndrome, not autism.
--The premise of Schieffer’s question deserves perspective. He talked of the country spending more than any other on education, but it’s worth pointing out that many other countries have government health care, which means schools don’t have to pay those costs on behalf of their teachers. If U.S. school districts didn’t have to pay for escalating health care costs of their teachers, then funding comparisons might look different.
This question wasn’t the only time during the debate that the candidates touched on education.
Earlier, the two squared off face-to-face about Bill Ayers, the Chicago education professor and 1960s-era radical whom the McCain campaign has sought to tie to Obama.
As promised, McCain engaged Obama in a verbal skirmish over the Ayers controversy. McCain reiterated that he doesn’t care about an “old, washed-up terrorist,” but said he does care about how forthcoming Obama has been about the facts. So Obama explained the facts this way:
Forty years ago, when I was 8 years old, he engaged in despicable acts with a radical domestic group. I have roundly condemned those acts. Ten years ago he served and I served on a school reform board that was funded by one of Ronald Reagan's former ambassadors and close friends, Mr. Annenberg. Other members on that board were the presidents of the University of Illinois, the president of Northwestern University, who happens to be a Republican, the president of the Chicago Tribune, a Republican-leaning newspaper. Mr. Ayers is not involved in my campaign. He has never been involved in this campaign. And he will not advise me in the White House. So that's Mr. Ayers.
Perhaps more surprising is that Obama made his most high-profile statement yet in support of pay-for-performance for teachers. He invoked pay-for-performance (without specifying whether he would pay based on student test scores) as he tried to give examples of how he’s bucked his own party.
“I support charter schools and pay for performance for teachers. Doesn’t make me popular with the teachers’ union,” Obama said.
The thing is, Obama and his advisers have consistently said he would support teacher-pay programs developed with teachers, and not imposed on them. That’s not exactly bucking his party. Also, while some Democratic interest groups may still oppose charter schools, there are a lot of Democratic leaders who embrace such independent public schools.