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McCain and Obama Tussle on Education

By David J. Hoff — October 17, 2008 6 min read
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Education was in the spotlight at the end of the final 2008 presidential debate, as the candidates had their first and probably only chance for a face-to-face exchange over their education platforms.

Though neither candidate introduced new ideas or changed his education platform, the nationally televised Oct. 15 event gave school issues their highest profile yet in a campaign that has been dominated by economic, energy, and foreign-policy concerns.

In responding to a question from moderator Bob Schieffer of CBS News about how each candidate would address the low performance of U.S. students on international mathematics and science tests, Sen. John McCain of Arizona emphasized his support for school choice, and Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois outlined his proposals to increase early-childhood education, recruit new teachers, and add new tax credits for college tuition.

“Now, typically, what’s happened is that there’s been a debate between more money or reform, and I think we need both,” said Sen. Obama, the Democratic nominee, who was the first to answer the final question at the debate, held at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y.

Sen. McCain, on the other hand, focused primarily on his proposals to expand parents’ ability to choose the schools their children attend.

“We have to be able to give parents the same choice, frankly, that Senator Obama and Mrs. Obama had and Cindy and I had to send our kids to the school—their kids to the school of their choice,” the Republican nominee said. “Charter schools aren’t the only answer, but they’re providing competition. They are providing the kind of competitions that have upgraded both schools—types of schools.”

Earlier in the debate, the candidates addressed Sen. Obama’s connection with William C. Ayers, an education professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, who has admitted to involvement in bombing government buildings in protest of the Vietnam War.

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Sen. McCain said that “we need to know the full extent of that relationship.” In response, Sen. Obama cited his work with Mr. Ayers in the 1990s on a school reform project in Chicago and said Mr. Ayers had not been involved in his campaign and would not advise him in the White House.

Views on NCLB

The two major presidential candidates had not had a substantive exchange over the future of federal K-12 policy until the debate, which was the third and final one. During their exchange, neither candidate changed a policy position or introduced new ones.

To hear the candidates discuss their views, though, was a welcome change from the overwhelming dominance of other issues in the series of debates, said one member of a state board of education.

“Most people in education are relieved that it came up, because it’s going to be a front-burner issue when we get past the election,” said Kenneth Willard, a member of the Kansas state school board and the president-elect of the National Association of State Boards of Education, based in Alexandria, Va.

“The fact is, we’re going to have to reform and remake No Child Left Behind,” Mr. Willard, a Republican and a supporter of Sen. McCain, said in an interview in Arlington, Va., where NASBE held a debate-watching party on the eve of the opening of its annual conference.

During the debate, both Sen. McCain and Sen. Obama said they supported the nearly 7-year-old NCLB law, which added new accountability requirements based on the goal that all students be proficient in reading and mathematics by the end of the 2013-14 school year.

“As far as the No Child Left Behind is concerned,” Sen. McCain said in response to a follow-up question on the federal government’s commitment to finance schools, “it was a great first beginning in my view. It had its flaws ... and we need to fix a lot of the problems. We need to sit down and reauthorize it.”

Sen. Obama focused on what many Democrats view as the law’s inadequate financial support, saying it had become an unfunded mandate in the same way as the main federal special education law.

“Local school districts end up having more of a burden, a bunch of unfunded mandates,” he said.

Taking on Unions

The discussion expanded into issues other than the future of the NCLB law.

Early in the debate, after Sen. McCain had portrayed his opponent as unwilling to challenge his party’s leaders, Sen. Obama responded that he advocates “charter schools and pay for performance for teachers.”

“Doesn’t make me popular with the teachers’ union,” Sen. Obama said.

The 3.2 million-member National Education Association and the 1.4 million-member American Federation of Teachers have endorsed Sen. Obama in the general election. During the primaries, the AFT endorsed Sen. Obama’s main opponent, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., and the NEA remained neutral.

The unions oppose pay-for-performance plans that rely on student test scores and that are implemented without collective bargaining. They also object to charter schools that don’t allow teachers to organize.

Despite his remarks during the debate, Sen. Obama is offering policy proposals that are in line with the views of the unions, said AFT President Randi Weingarten.

“If you actually think about the positions he’s had, ... they’re totally in sync with where the AFT has been,” Ms. Weingarten said in an interview. In other forums, Sen. Obama has said administrators should work with teachers to craft alternative-pay plans.

Choice: Dividing Line

The clearest distinction between the candidates’ education stances was on their approaches to school choice.

In answering Mr. Schieffer’s initial question on education, Sen. McCain said that education was “the civil rights issue of the 21st century,” repeating what he said last month in accepting the Republican nomination. (“McCain Promises to ‘Shake Up’ Schools,” Sept. 10, 2008.)

President Bush and other supporters of the NCLB law have said the same thing.

Sen. McCain cited the recent increase in the number of charter schools in New Orleans and New York City as examples of ways that choice helps provide incentives for public schools to improve. He also highlighted the federally funded private-school-voucher program for children in the District of Columbia.

In response, Sen. Obama repeated his support for charter schools, but said that he saw no evidence that vouchers have helped improve the achievement of students in the nation’s capital and other places that offer vouchers.

“The centerpiece of Senator McCain’s education policy is to increase the voucher program in D.C. by 2,000 slots,” he added. “That leaves all of you who live in the other 50 states without an education reform policy from Senator McCain.”

Both candidates agree that charter schools are an important ingredient in the policy landscape.

But they reached that conclusion for different reasons, said Nelson Smith, the president of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, based in Washington.

Sen. McCain supports the publicly funded by largely independent schools because they introduce market forces into the public school system, while Sen. Obama sees them as options that can offer alternatives to traditional public schools designed to help specific types of students, Mr.Smith said.

What matters, he said, is that the candidates’ positions reflect the growing public support for charter schools.

“People are beginning to get it,” Mr. Smith said. “Both candidates ... are in the same place.”

A version of this article appeared in the October 22, 2008 edition of Education Week as McCain and Obama Tussle on Education

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