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Democrats’ K-12 Views Differ, Subtly

By David J. Hoff & Alyson Klein — February 22, 2008 10 min read
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Throughout the presidential campaign, the leading Democrats have been speaking from a similar script on education—until this month, when U.S. Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois suggested that he could be persuaded to support private school vouchers.

“If there was any argument for vouchers, it was ‘Let’s see if the experiment works,’ ” Sen. Obama told the editorial board of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel on Feb. 13. “And if it does, whatever my preconception, you do what’s best for kids.”

That statement diverges from the stance of U.S. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York, who rejected any private-school-choice proposals in her interview with the same editors the next day.

Although Sen. Obama’s campaign has since downplayed his voucher comments, the exchange suggests that the two remaining Democratic contenders have subtle but important differences in their approaches to federal education policy, whether the topic is expanding school choice, rewriting the No Child Left Behind Act, or experimenting with new forms of teacher pay.

Sen. Obama, for example, believes the first step to fixing the NCLB law would be to ensure it is adequately funded, according to his campaign Web site. He also proposes changing the law’s testing policies “to track student progress to measure readiness for college and the workplace and improve student learning in a timely, individualized manner.”

Sen. Clinton, meanwhile, suggests that the law needs to be substantially rewritten by improving the quality of tests and by adding new measures to its accountability system, such as graduation rates and scores on formative assessments.

The differences may not appear big to the typical voter, but they reflect the experiences of two candidates who have both been involved in education improvement efforts during their careers.

As first lady in Arkansas, Sen. Clinton worked on education policy issues, helping the state set educational standards and establish a teacher qualifying exam in the 1980s, said Catherine Brown, the domestic-policy adviser for the senator’s presidential campaign. Sen. Clinton also worked on education and social-welfare issues as a board member of the Children’s Defense Fund, a Washington-based advocacy group that lobbies for child-welfare needs.

Sen. Obama had significant experience working in Chicago in the 1990s as a grassroots organizer and as the chairman of an effort supporting community-based school reforms financed by the Annenberg Foundation.

“They both bring a lot of knowledge to the table,” said Cynthia G. Brown, the director of education policy at the Center for American Progress, a Washington think tank with links to prominent Democrats. (She is not related to Sen. Clinton’s domestic-policy adviser.)

And either candidate might be able to highlight educational issues in the general-election campaign to help attract bipartisan support against U.S. Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the likely Republican nominee. Although Sen. McCain hasn’t outlined a detailed education platform, he has called the NCLB law a “good beginning” on the campaign trail and has promoted private-school-voucher plans during his 25 years in Congress. (“McCain Emphasizes School Choice, Accountability, But Lacks Specifics,” Feb. 20, 2008.)

“I expect education will give [Sen. Obama or Sen. Clinton] an opportunity to make important statements on an issue that’s not partisan,” said Ms. Brown of the Center for American Progress.

Questions of Choice

In the lengthy presidential nominating process, which reaches what may be a critical day for the Democratic rivals in the Ohio and Texas primaries next week, education hasn’t been a front-burner issue for either party.

Although Sen. Clinton and Sen. Obama have proposed plans to expand access to preschool and to reduce college costs, those plans haven’t received much attention.

In televised debates early in the process, the two of them and the other Democratic hopefuls criticized the No Child Left Behind law, which is one of President Bush’s top domestic accomplishments. Sen. Clinton voted for the law in 2001, before Mr. Obama was in Congress. But the candidates’ proposals to fix the law haven’t been widely discussed in debates or in stump speeches.

While Sen. Clinton and Sen. Obama differ over how to fix the law, the biggest potential difference on education emerged when the issue of private school choice came up while they campaigned before the Feb. 19 Wisconsin primary.

School choice is a significant issue in the state because Milwaukee is the site of the longest-running publicly financed private-school- voucher program in the nation.

In answering a question about his stand on private school choice during his meeting with editors of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Sen. Obama started by saying that he was skeptical about private school choice and spent most of his time explaining why.

“My view has been that you are not going to generate the supply of high-quality schools to meet the demand,” he said, according to a video posted on the newspaper’s Web site. “Instead, what you’re going to get is a few schools that cream the kids that are easiest to teach,” leaving groups such as students in special education in the public schools.

As he concluded his remarks, Sen. Obama suggested, though, that he could change his mind if a longitudinal study demonstrated increases in student achievement. The suggestion was a notable departure from the blanket opposition to vouchers that is standard for Democratic presidential candidates.

Such opposition is also a core position for the nation’s teachers’ unions, which are closely allied with the Democratic Party. Sen. Clinton has been endorsed by the 1.3 million-member American Federation of Teachers, while its Illinois and Chicago affiliates have been working for Sen. Obama.

The 3.2 million-member National Education Association has yet to make an endorsement, although Mr. Obama has the support of its Illinois affiliate. (“Teachers’ Unions Take Own Path on Election,” Jan. 30, 2008.)

In her meeting at the Milwaukee newspaper the day after its session with Sen. Obama, Sen. Clinton didn’t waver in her opposition to government support for private school choice.

“I still have doubts about the constitutionality of a voucher system,” she told the newspaper’s editors. The senator said that if a district or state created a private-school-choice program, it would be hard to deny vouchers “to certain applicants despite what might be very serious concerns about [a private school’s] curriculum or approach.”

As an example, she said that voucher laws could permit public money to be used to send a student to a white supremacist’s school or a “school of the jihad.”

In a 2002 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the Cleveland voucher program, which, like Milwaukee’s, allows parents to use the publicly funded tuition aid at religious schools.

Some school choice advocates in Wisconsin said they were heartened by Sen. Obama’s comments.

“I was very pleased to see that he was open to the evidence,” said Susan Mitchell, the president of School Choice Wisconsin, a Milwaukee- based nonprofit that advocates and performs outreach on behalf of school choice programs, and a political Independent. “I thought it was quite refreshing that he would say whatever is best for the children is where I would be. … We’re accustomed to people saying ‘no way—no matter what you tell me about how it works, we’re not going there.’ ”

Later, in a statement provided to Education Week, Sen. Obama’s campaign emphasized that the senator’s comments to the Milwaukee paper did not signal he had changed his opposition to private school choice.

“Senator Obama has always been a critic of vouchers, and expressed his long-standing skepticism in that interview,” the statement said. It added that the candidate has always voted against voucher proposals.

NCLB in Focus

While private school choice may be part of the debate during the presidential campaign, it’s unlikely the issue would be a defining issue for either Democrat if he or she won the presidency. But the next president is almost certain to play a significant role in the future of the No Child Left Behind law, which Congress is working to reauthorize. If Congress doesn’t complete the reauthorization this year, as many observers expect, the next president would put his or her stamp on the law’s revisions.

Both Sen. Clinton and Sen. Obama have criticized the law as requiring too much testing. Under NCLB, the latest version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act first adopted under President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1965, states must test students in grades 3-8 and once in high school in reading and mathematics.

In several campaign stops on behalf of his wife, former President Bill Clinton has called the law a “train wreck” and placed some of the blame for it on Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., the chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, who made a high-profile endorsement of Sen. Obama late last month.

In a campaign stop in Keene, N.H., late last year, Sen. Clinton gave a detailed explanation of how she would change the law’s testing requirements.

“It is treating everybody as a little test-taker … and a lot of the curriculum has been eliminated in favor of teaching to the tests,” she said, according to a video that has been posted on the YouTube Web site. Under the law, tests should be changed to provide “individualized accountability based on how [individual] students do,” she added.

Sen. Clinton also favors revising the law to add new measures for determining school success, such as scores on Advanced Placement tests, graduation rates, and the results of formative assessments, said Catherine Brown, her domestic- policy adviser.

Sen. Obama has similar ideas to improve assessments by basing accountability decisions on individual student progress and making test results more useful to teachers.

He proposes to give states money “to implement a broader range of assessments that can evaluate higher-order skills, including students’ abilities to use technology, conduct research, engage in scientific investigation, solve problems, [and] present and defend their ideas,” according to a fact sheet on educational issues distributed by the campaign. “These assessments will provide immediate feedback … so that teachers can begin improving student learning right away.”

Merit Pay

Sen. Clinton and Sen. Obama have made somewhat different comments on teacher pay, but a close examination of their proposals suggests that both would support extra pay for teachers who take on additional responsibilities within their schools. And both say any proposals for alternative forms of compensation would have to be developed with and supported by unions and teachers.

In a speech to the NEA’s annual convention in July, Sen. Obama appeared to endorse the concept of merit pay based on teachers’ effectiveness, although he emphasized rewards and said the pay would not be tied to “an arbitrary test score.”

A bill he introduced in 2006 would have created a pilot project to evaluate teachers based in part on the test scores of their students.

Under his campaign proposal, teachers could earn extra pay for learning new skills, such as earning a degree in special education, or taking on leadership roles, including serving as mentors for new teachers, said Linda Darling-Hammond, an education professor at Stanford University who is advising the Obama campaign.

Sen. Clinton has endorsed meritpay plans that reward all school employees based on improvements in student achievement in the entire school. Her idea is modeled after the plan negotiated by the New York City public schools and the United Federation of Teachers. That union, like its national counterpart, the AFT, has endorsed Sen. Clinton.

Sen. Clinton also supports additional pay for teachers who work in subjects with a shortage of teachers, such as science and math, and in hard-to-staff schools, according to Ms. Brown, her adviser.

A version of this article appeared in the February 27, 2008 edition of Education Week as Democrats’ K-12 Views Differ, Subtly

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