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Teaching Profession

McCain and Obama Advisers on Spec Ed, NCLB, and Funding

By Michele McNeil — July 23, 2008 2 min read

Sen. John McCain will be filling in the blanks in his education plan in a “little bit” with proposals on prekindergarten, college access and affordability, and special education, top education adviser Lisa Graham Keegan told the National Conference of State Legislators today in New Orleans.

While my colleague was covering an Obama event, I’m was here in the Big Easy listening to a forum on the education ideas of the presidential candidates, starring Keegan and Linda Darling-Hammond (on behalf of Obama).

There was very little that hasn’t been said before, either by the candidates themselves, or their advisers. But I’ll hit on the highlights:

* Keegan wouldn’t address questions about early education or college, saying McCain was getting ready to talk in more details about his plans for such programs.

* I heard more than I have ever heard before about special education from the two advisers. Keegan, who noted that McCain’s wife, Cindy, was a special education teacher, said the Arizona senator was going to address the issues of the federal special education law (IDEA) and its funding in upcoming remarks. She said he’s very supportive of it, but also realizes that if schools did a better job of teaching reading, then fewer students would be referred to special education, thus saving those dollars for those students who really need it. She reiterated McCain’s support for research into autism-spectrum disorders. Darling-Hammond said Obama wants to quadruple the number of Head Start slots to help address this issue, and fully fund IDEA.

*To the question of what, exactly, Obama means when he dabbles in supporting merit-pay programs—a touchy subject for Democrats—Darling-Hammond was evasive about whether he would use test scores. She was evasive until Keegan stepped in and asked her point-blank if he opposes using any test score whatsoever. Darling-Hammond hemmed and hawed, but ended up saying he would support using test scores as part of multiple measures to gauge teacher performance.

*Legislators got a chance to ask several questions, and were most curious about their stances on additional funding for NCLB and for special education. Obama is all for spending more money on NCLB and special education (Darling-Hammond noted that his $18 billion education price tag is less than the cost of one month in Iraq). But Keegan said money is not the answer—that the federal government has increased its spending nearly 50 percent over pre-NCLB levels, yet students, especially poor and minority, are still failing in alarming numbers.