As their education plans begin to crystallize, sharper differences are emerging between John McCain and Barack Obama on school choice, teacher preparation, and tutoring, even as neither presidential candidate has released a detailed proposal on revising the No Child Left Behind Act.
Sen. McCain, R-Ariz., has pledged to direct federal money to alternative teacher-certification programs, give parents more direct access to supplemental educational services, and expand private school choice, specifically through online education and by expanding the federally funded voucher experiment in Washington.
Sen. Obama, D-Ill., has called for spending $18 billion more annually on education. He wants to expand teacher-residency programs, which help bolster field experiences for prospective educators while allowing them to earn certification from a university program. And he’s been opposed to allowing public money to go to private school vouchers.
Until recently, Sen. McCain had generally sidestepped education in favor of foreign policy and other issues that he has been more closely identified with throughout his quarter-century-long career in Congress. But the presumptive Republican nominee provided details on his education plan in a July 16 speech in Cincinnati to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, giving the two campaigns their first real opportunity to spar on school issues.
For instance, Sen. McCain promised to champion an expansion of the District of Columbia Opportunity Scholarship Program, which provides vouchers to students from low-income families in the nation’s capital to pay for private school tuition, including at religious schools.
He used the issue to draw a contrast with Sen. Obama, the presumptive Democratic standard-bearer, who had outlined his opposition to federal funding for private school vouchers in a July 13 speech to the nation’s second-largest teachers’ union.
“In remarks to the American Federation of Teachers last weekend, Senator Obama has dismissed public support for private school vouchers for low-income Americans as ‘tired rhetoric about vouchers and school choice,’ ” Sen. McCain said to the NAACP. “All of that went over well with the teachers’ union, but where does it leave families and their children who are stuck in failing schools? ...
“When a public system fails, repeatedly, to meet these minimal objectives,” Sen. McCain said, “parents ask only for a choice in the education of their children.”
Sen. McCain proposes to expand the $13 million-a-year Washington voucher program to $20 million. Democratic leaders on Capitol Hill have said they may allow the program’s authorization to expire after the 2008-09 school year.
Sen. Obama’s campaign argues that proposing to expand the Washington voucher program doesn’t qualify as a national blueprint for improving schools.
“McCain’s plan proposes $7 million in new funding for expanding vouchers in the District of Columbia without mentioning other school districts across the country,” Obama campaign aides wrote in a memo sent to reporters shortly after Sen. McCain’s speech. “This is hardly a strategy to fix schools throughout this country.”
Sen. McCain wants to allocate $250 million for a competitive-grant program to expand online-learning opportunities, including developing virtual schools and increasing access to Internet-based Advanced Placement courses and tutoring services. He also calls for creating a $250 million scholarship program, to be administered by the federal Department of Education, that would offer grants of up to $4,000 for low-income students who wanted to enroll in online courses, including SAT- and ACT-preparation courses.
The Obama campaign contends that it might be difficult for states and districts to provide oversight of virtual schools.
“Many online schools are for-profit ventures and may siphon money away from public schools,” the Obama campaign memo said.
Sen. McCain also expressed support for alternative-certification programs, and said the federal government should target money to help school districts recruit prospective teachers who graduated in the top 25 percent of their college classes, or who have taken part in programs such as Teach For America or the New Teacher Project.
He wants to allocate 5 percent of all funding under Title II, the portion of the No Child Left Behind Act that deals with teacher-quality issues, for that initiative.
“You can be a Nobel laureate and not qualify to teach in most public schools today,” Sen. McCain said in the NAACP speech. “They don’t have all the proper credits in educational ‘theory’ or ‘methodology’—all they have is learning and the desire and ability to share it. If we’re putting the interests of students first, then those qualifications should be enough.”
In the memo critiquing Sen. McCain’s education plan, Sen. Obama’s campaign wrote that the Illinois Democrat also supports alternative-certification programs. But the campaign argued that the Obama plan, which proposes new money for mentors and professional-development, would do more to help prepare educators and improve their classroom practice.
Both candidates’ plans share a goal of getting more effective educators into the classroom, particularly to help poor and minority students, said Heather Peske, the director of teacher quality at the Education Trust, a Washington-based research and advocacy organization. She said both approaches could be promising, if administered correctly.
But Joel Packer, the chief NCLB lobbyist for the National Education Association, the nation’s largest teachers’ union, said that the 3.2 million-member NEA, which endorsed Sen. Obama on July 4, is wary of the McCain proposal.
“We’re not opposed to alternative certification, but there’s such a range of those programs,” Mr. Packer said. Sen. Obama’s approach would offer more help to beginning teachers, he said.
“We think teaching is a profession,” Mr. Packer said. “Not anyone can walk in and just be a teacher, just like not anyone can walk in and be a doctor.”
Under the 6 ½ -year-old No Child Left Behind law, parents can have access to free tutoring for their children if the students attend schools that have failed to meet the law’s achievement targets for three years. But few parents use the services, in part, critics say, because districts don’t make it clear that they are available.
Sen. McCain proposes allowing local providers of supplemental educational services to receive certification directly from the federal government, and to be able to market their services to parents. Some money from local districts’ federal Title I grants for disadvantaged students would then be funneled straight to the providers, bypassing the districts.
Sen. McCain’s plan drew criticism from Michael J. Petrilli, who served in the Education Department during President Bush’s first term. He said that while he agrees with Sen. McCain that some local districts have “gummed up the system,” the Education Department is ill-equipped to monitor tutoring providers closely.
“I don’t see how the federal government could possibly have the capacity to do this well,” said Mr. Petrilli, a vice president of the Washington-based Thomas B. Fordham Foundation. “You’d have to double the size of the Department of Education.”
Sen. Obama also addressed the NAACP, with his July 14 remarks getting an enthusiastic reception. His wide-ranging speech touched only briefly on education. He said he would increase funding for the No Child Left Behind Act, invest in training teachers, and expand prekindergarten programs.
But those policy prescriptions won’t succeed unless parents are committed to becoming involved in their children’s education, Sen. Obama said. He said parental participation is key to realizing the goals of the civil rights movement.
“I know that Thurgood Marshall did not argue Brown versus Board of Education so that some of us could stop doing our jobs as parents,” Sen. Obama said of the lawyer and later U.S. Supreme Court justice who led the challenge to segregated schools. “That wasn’t the deal.”
Neither candidate has offered detailed ideas for a renewal of the No Child Left Behind Act. Reauthorization of the bipartisan law, which holds schools accountable for meeting annual student-achievement targets, has stalled in Congress and will likely be a major piece of unfinished business awaiting the next president.
Sen. Obama called for “fixing” the law in his NAACP speech, but didn’t suggest any specific policy directions. Sen. McCain didn’t mention the law during his speech to the group.
A version of this article appeared in the July 30, 2008 edition of Education Week as Candidates’ K-12 Views Take Shape