Federal

Candidates Are at Odds Over K-12

By Alyson Klein & David J. Hoff — June 09, 2008 4 min read
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The presumed November matchup produced by the long presidential-primary season that ended last week offers contrasting approaches to K-12 policy, along with some common ground on the basics of the No Child Left Behind Act.

Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the presumptive Republican nominee, and Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois, who last week secured enough delegates to claim the Democratic nomination, both express support for the NCLB law’s goals and its use of testing to measure schools’ success.

But Sen. McCain would promote market forces as a way to spur school improvement, and would likely seek to freeze education spending as part of a review of the effectiveness of federal programs.

Sen. Obama, meanwhile, promises to search for new ways of assessing students and to invest significantly in efforts to improve teacher quality.

Although education wasn’t a prominent issue in the Democratic or Republican primaries, it could emerge more clearly in the general-election campaign, one political scientist said last week. He pointed particularly to the potential for a sharper focus on where the candidates stand on the requirements for testing and accountability under the NCLB law.

In the past two presidential elections, the Democratic and Republican nominees supported the idea that the efforts to improve schools should include regular assessment of student progress and measures to hold schools accountable for increases in student achievement, said Patrick J. McGuinn, an assistant professor of political science at Drew University in Madison, N.J., who has written extensively about the politics of the NCLB law.

“The country hasn’t had a great debate about the costs and benefits of test-driven accountability,” Mr. McGuinn said. “We’re ripe for it right now.”

Changes in Testing

On May 28, in his most extensive education speech of the primaries, Sen. Obama reaffirmed his support for the goals of the 6-year-old federal law, saying they were “the right ones.”

“More accountability is right,” he said at Mapleton Expeditionary School for the Arts in Thornton, Colo. “Higher standards are right.”

Campaign workers and supporters in Billings, Mont., applaud as they listen to Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois speak in St. Paul, Minn., after the polls closed for the June 3 Democratic presidential primary in Montana.

But, Sen. Obama added, the federal government must provide enough money and other assistance to help substandard schools turn around, and he advocated improving the assessments that are the cornerstone of the law’s accountability system.

“We also need to realize that we can meet high standards without forcing teachers and students to spend most of the year preparing for a single, high-stakes test,” he said.

During the primaries, Sen. Obama never criticized the NCLB law with the same ferocity as Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York, his leading opponent for the nomination, or other Democrats candidates. Mr. Obama was not yet in the U.S. Senate when Congress passed the bipartisan measure in 2001 at the urging of President Bush.

‘Good Beginning’

Sen. McCain has said that he considers the NCLB law a “good beginning.”

He adds that the law needs to change to improve the way special education students and English-language learners are assessed. But he hasn’t suggested that he would change the way schools are held accountable for student performance under the law, which requires reading and mathematics tests in grades 3-8 and once during high school.

Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, greets supporters after speaking in Kenner, La., on June 3.

Sen. McCain has also said he would endorse federal programs that give parents broader school choice, such as vouchers for private schools, including religious schools.

Such initiatives are popular with Republican voters, but Sen. McCain’s strong support for the NCLB law isn’t widely endorsed by voters from either party, said one former Bush administration official.

Sen. McCain “is putting himself in a difficult situation by embracing NCLB so wholeheartedly,” said Michael J. Petrilli, the vice president of national policy and programs for the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, who served in the U.S. Department of Education during President Bush’s first term.

“Everybody has acknowledged that the law needs some reworking,” Mr. Petrilli said, “and he has created this huge opening for Senator Obama, who can now embrace the ‘mend it, don’t end it’ platform, which is going to sound like the common-sense platform.”

Union Action

Still, some important new supporters of Sen. Obama will likely be urging him to recommend significant changes to the law.

For more stories on this topic see No Child Left Behind news page.

For more information and analysis on education and the 2008 presidential campaign, read Campaign K-12.

On June 4, the day after Sen. Obama said he had the delegates to secure the nomination, the National Education Association announced it would endorse him in the general election. The 3.2 million-member teachers’ union is one of the most vocal critics of the NCLB law’s emphasis on testing.

While the NEA waited until Sen. Obama had essentially locked up the nomination before making any endorsement, the 1.3 million-member American Federation of Teachers was an early supporter of Sen. Clinton and worked actively on her behalf.

Because neither national teachers’ union supported Sen. Obama during the primaries, he may have the opportunity to be a “different kind of Democrat,” said Joe Williams, the executive director of Democrats for Education Reform, a New York City-based political action committee that contributes money to Democratic candidates.

“He’s earned his independence so that he can really decide which of the unions’ positions he really wants to embrace and which ones he doesn’t,” Mr. Williams said. “The conventional wisdom is the time that you’ve got to pander to the unions is during the primary. He emerged victorious without [their help].”

A version of this article appeared in the June 11, 2008 edition of Education Week as Candidates Are at Odds Over K-12

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