Federal

McCain, Obama Spar on Education

By David J. Hoff — September 15, 2008 9 min read
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The campaigns of Sen. John McCain and Sen. Barack Obama engaged in a sharp and testy exchange on education last week, making the topic the center of debate for the first time since the long race for the presidency began.

Neither candidate changed course on the policies he is promising to pursue. But Sen. Obama sought to distinguish himself from Sen. McCain in two public appearances, trying to portray himself as a bipartisan problem-solver for schools. Each campaign also released a hard-hitting TV ad attacking the other candidate’s record on education.

The attention to education in the first week of campaigning after the back-to-back Democratic and Republican conventions was heartening to some observers. But it’s unlikely that a substantive debate will emerge from the week’s activities, one political scientist said, because the campaigns appear to be focusing on the opposing candidate’s character and personality.

“As for [education] being a centerpiece, I don’t think that’s going to happen with just two months to go” before the election, said Paul Manna, an assistant professor of government at the College of William and Mary, who studies politics related to education. “It’s hard to see how it’s going to gain traction.”

Still, some tweaks to each candidate’s policy proposals have emerged in the wake of the conventions.

In what the Obama campaign called “a major policy speech” on Sept. 9 in Riverside, Ohio, Sen. Obama essentially summarized the proposals from his Democratic primary campaign, but added a notable new plank: He would double federal aid for charter schools, to $400 million a year.

“I will lead a new era of accountability in education,” Sen. Obama said in the speech. “But I don’t just want to hold our teachers accountable. I want you to hold our government accountable. I want you to hold me accountable.”

The next day, the Illinois Democrat visited Granby High School in Norfolk, Va., where he met with 9th graders and answered their questions on such topics as choosing a college and his experience as a community organizer in Chicago.

Sen. Barack Obama’s television commercial.
Review an Education Week analysis of
Sen. Obama’s recent commercial
.

The Obama campaign also released a television commercial asserting that Sen. McCain “doesn’t understand” what it will take to improve schools. The McCain campaign responded quickly—by the end of the same day—with an ad of its own, which charged that Sen. Obama’s only legislative accomplishment on education was a Illinois bill mandating sex education for kindergartners. Many independent evaluators questioned the accuracy of the ad, which quoted from Education Week and other newspapers.

One Democratic activist said the timing of Sen. Obama’s speech and the depth of its content suggest that education issues may get a serious debate in the 2008 election. For much of the primary and general-election campaigns, economics and foreign policy have been the central focus of the candidates.

Sen. John McCain’s television commercial.
Review an Education Week analysis of
Sen. McCain’s recent commercial
.

“It says something that [Mr. Obama is] talking about education fewer than 60 days before the election,” said Robert Gordon, a senior fellow with the Center for American Progress Action Fund, a Washington think tank with ties to the Obama campaign and other Democrats.

“McCain sounds pretty good on education, but when you scratch even a little bit beneath the surface, there’s no there, there,” said Mr. Gordon, who has provided advice to Sen. Obama’s campaign.

An adviser to Sen. McCain took issue with that appraisal, saying that the Arizona Republican’s school choice proposals are a serious attempt change the existing education bureaucracy and would result in better schools.

“Senator McCain ... is interested in empowering families and speaking directly to the educational needs of Americans, as opposed to the system,” said Eugene W. Hickok, a former deputy secretary of education under President Bush who is advising the McCain campaign. “Whereas Obama, beyond his mantra of more money, more money, is really just supporting these traditional approaches to the system.”

Shift to Other Topics

In their speeches accepting the nominations of their respective parties, Sen. Obama and Sen. McCain pointed to their education policy proposals.

In his Aug. 29 speech in Denver, Sen. Obama promised to “meet our moral obligation to provide a world-class education.” He outlined an agenda to recruit new teachers and hold all educators accountable for meeting higher standards. (“Top-Notch Education ‘A Moral Obligation,’ Obama Tells Throng,” Sept. 3, 2008.)

One week later, Sen. McCain called for increasing parents’ ability to choose schools for their children, especially those who attend schools with low student achievement. (“McCain Promises to ‘Shake Up’ Schools,” Sept. 10, 2008.)

Sen. McCain reiterated the education themes from his convention speech early last week in an appearance on the cbs News show “Face the Nation.”

“Everyone has equal access to a school. But what’s the point of access to a failed school or a failing school?” Sen. McCain said. “We’ve got to give them more choice, more opportunity—all Americans.”

Members of the crowd react to Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., during the presidential candidate’s speech on education at Stebbins High School in Riverside, Ohio, last week.

The substance of the candidates’ speeches played almost no role in last week’s dueling advertisements.

Such attack ads are common in presidential politics, but it’s rare that they hinge on the candidates’ education positions.

The dueling ads helped raise the profile of education in the campaign, but only temporarily. Soon after Sen. Obama’s speech and the debut of the ads, campaign coverage in the news media focused on allegations of personal slights.

The candidates did, however, address the subject of community service. On Sept. 11, the anniversary of the 2001 terrorist attacks, Sen. McCain and Sen. Obama appeared separately at a televised forum and discussed how such service efforts could help schools.

Adding Charter Schools

The events of the week didn’t significantly change the substance of the candidates’ positions on education.

Speaking at Stebbins High School in suburban Dayton, Sen. Obama tried to position himself as the candidate with the ability to bridge the partisan debates on education issues.

“For decades, they’ve been stuck in the same tired debates over education that have crippled our progress and left schools and parents to fend for themselves,” he said of policymakers in Washington. “It’s been Democrat versus Republican, vouchers versus the status quo, more money versus more reform. There’s partisanship and there’s bickering, but there’s no understanding that both sides have good ideas that we’ll need to implement if we hope to make the changes our children need.”

In arguing how he would move the debate forward, Sen. Obama listed the pieces of his education platform that have been in place since voters started casting ballots in the primaries. In addition to recruiting and training new teachers, Sen. Obama would experiment with new ways of paying them. He also would seek to spend $10 billion a year to expand access to prekindergarten programs, and he would create $4,000 tax credits for college tuition.

The Democratic nominee said he would aim to change the federal No Child Left Behind Act to improve the quality of tests and the way the law holds schools accountable for student performance. The senator also said he would fully fund the law, which is something that Democrats in Congress have long said President Bush has failed to do. In the current fiscal year, the nclb law’s programs are receiving $24.7 billion—or $14.7 billion less than the law authorizes for spending on them.

In Ohio, Sen. Obama added one new piece to his plan with his promise to double the funding for the federal program that supports the development and expansion of charter schools, which are publicly funded but operate independently. The program now receives $200 million a year.

Although a fresh addition to Mr. Obama’s agenda, the proposal wasn’t surprising, Mr. Gordon said. Sen. Obama has been a supporter of charter schools in his hometown of Chicago and has mentioned his support for them in speeches throughout the campaign.

Embracing Choice

The proposed new level of support for charters also appeared to be an attempt to counter the emphasis Sen. McCain put on school choice in his Sept. 4 acceptance speech.

But it was an incomplete response, said one policy analyst who supports programs that allow parents to choose among public and private schools.

“Charter schools are not full choice,” said Lance T. Izumi, the senior director of education studies at the Pacific Research Institute, a Sacramento, Calif., think tank. “There are still things that block charter schools from forming.”

Sen. McCain’s extended remarks on school choice, which constituted one of the most detailed policy discussions in his acceptance speech, deviated slightly from the campaign proposals he had outlined in earlier speeches and policy papers.

In those statements, the Republican nominee’s only mention of school choice was his support for expanding the 4-year-old federal pilot project offering vouchers for District of Columbia students to use at private schools.

“I think he does want school choice for everybody in this country, but where he can implement school choice broadly is primarily in the District of Columbia,” Mr. Hickok said.

Even though Sen. McCain’s convention speech implied he would offer broader choices than his policy positions suggest, Mr. Izumi said the issue deserved the amount of time Sen. McCain gave it because it was an example of his promise to scale back the government’s role in people’s lives. “It fit into his whole campaign theme of trying to bypass the government elites and to reach out to the common person,” Mr. Izumi said.

To deliver on the promise of school choice, Mr. Izumi added, Sen. McCain will need to produce a detailed explanation of the policies he would pursue. “He needs to assure people that he’ll have a practical plan at some point,” he said.

Although the profile of education in the 2008 campaign rose last week—even if only briefly—neither candidate has addressed the most significant issues facing federal education policy, said Chester E. Finn Jr., the president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a Washington-based think tank that supports standards and accountability.

NCLB Focus Sought

The next president must negotiate ways to solve the current problems with the nclb law, which requires states to assess students in reading and mathematics in grades 3-8 and once in high school, and requires states to intervene in schools that aren’t on track to reach the goal that all students be proficient in those subjects by the end of the 2013-14 school year.

“Everybody would like to talk about the wonderful way they could make education better,” said Mr. Finn, a former assistant secretary of education under President Reagan.

But, he said, neither candidate’s education plans address how to improve the rigor of states’ standards, how to improve interventions in schools that aren’t meeting the law’s goals, how to ensure that all classrooms have highly qualified teachers, and several other issues that have been difficult to implement under the bipartisan, 6½-year-old law, which was one of President Bush’s biggest domestic-policy initiatives.

With the law overdue for reauthorization, the next president needs to have a concrete plan to solve those problems, Mr. Finn said.

“It would be irresponsible not to,” he said. “These, after all, are the programs through which the lion’s share of federal money for education flows.”

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Staff Writer Alyson Klein contributed to this report.
A version of this article appeared in the September 17, 2008 edition of Education Week as McCain, Obama Spar on Education

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