Education, the original evergreen election issue

9 years ago

Finally, last night, thanks to Bob Schieffer, who moderated the third and final debate between Arizona Senator and Republican candidate for president, John McCain, and Illinois Senator and Democratic candidate for president, Barack Obama, we got to hear the candidates respond in depth to the issue of education.  Here are two clips of the exchanges:


You can read the full transcript of the third debate here, but I'm going to excerpt and dissect what was said section by section, and intersperse the considerations and between-the-lines messages that I believe the candidates addressed, failed to address and should have addressed.  [For a quick hit of how other bloggers felt about this portion of the debate, check out Education Week's EduWonkette Carnival of Education: The Debate Edition, just posted today.  It is a very thorough and specific round-up of the sub-issues and opinions.]

On to what they said (I've bolded what I view as the crux of the questions and the answers):

Schieffer: Let's stop there, because I want to get in a question on education and I'm afraid this is going to have to be our last question, gentlemen.

The question is this: the U.S. spends more per capita than any other country on education. Yet, by every international measurement, in math and science competence, from kindergarten through the 12th grade, we trail most of the countries of the world.

The implications of this are clearly obvious. Some even say it poses a threat to our national security.

Do you feel that way and what do you intend to do about it?

The question to Sen. Obama first.

Obama: This probably has more to do with our economic future than anything and that means it also has a national security implication, because there's never been a nation on earth that saw its economy decline and continued to maintain its primacy as a military power.

So we've got to get our education system right. Now, typically, what's happened is that there's been a debate between more money or reform, and I think we need both.

In some cases, we are going to have to invest. Early childhood education, which closes the achievement gap, so that every child is prepared for school, every dollar we invest in that, we end up getting huge benefits with improved reading scores, reduced dropout rates, reduced delinquency rates.

I think it's going to be critically important for us to recruit a generation of new teachers, an army of new teachers, especially in math and science, give them higher pay, give them more professional development and support in exchange for higher standards and accountability.

And I think it's important for us to make college affordable. Right now, I meet young people all across the country who either have decided not to go to college or if they're going to college, they are taking on $20,000, $30,000, $50,000, $60,000 worth of debt, and it's very difficult for them to go into some fields, like basic research in science, for example, thinking to themselves that they're going to have a mortgage before they even buy a house.

And that's why I've proposed a $4,000 tuition credit, every student, every year, in exchange for some form of community service, whether it's military service, whether it's Peace Corps, whether it's working in a community.

If we do those things, then I believe that we can create a better school system.

But there's one last ingredient that I just want to mention, and that's parents. We can't do it just in the schools. Parents are going to have to show more responsibility. They've got to turn off the TV set, put away the video games, and, finally, start instilling that thirst for knowledge that our students need.

Schieffer: Sen. McCain?

McCain: Well, it's the civil rights issue of the 21st century. There's no doubt that we have achieved equal access to schools in America after a long and difficult and terrible struggle.

But what is the advantage in a low income area of sending a child to a failed school and that being your only choice?

So choice and competition amongst schools is one of the key elements that's already been proven in places in like New Orleans and New York City and other places, where we have charter schools, where we take good teachers and we reward them and promote them.

And we find bad teachers another line of work. And we have to be able to give parents the same choice, frankly, that Sen. 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.

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.

Now, throwing money at the problem is not the answer. You will find that some of the worst school systems in America get the most money per student.

So I believe that we need to reward these good teachers.

We need to encourage programs such as Teach for America and Troops to Teachers where people, after having served in the military, can go right to teaching and not have to take these examinations which -- or have the certification that some are required in some states.

Look, we must improve education in this country. As far as college education is concerned, we need to make those student loans available. We need to give them a repayment schedule that they can meet. We need to have full student loan program for in-state tuition. And we certainly need to adjust the certain loan eligibility to inflation.

So, let's review the two approaches this way: Schieffer basically asked, do you agree that we are, for some reason, not turning out what we need to be turning out in terms of competency, and that if that's true, it impacts our national security, and if you do agree with those two premises, what do you think we should be doing to improve that end result?

Obama and McCain both agree that we're not turning out what we should in terms of what K-12 education produces, although McCain doesn't start out with that - he ends with that. I confess - the first sentences of his response make very little sense to me except as I'm familiar with them in Ohio: they are talking points that people in favor of privatizing education often push in conjunction with saying that they don't want to spend more money because in fact we've improved the way in which money is spread around and therefore there are no longer disparities.  Also, national studies have shown that public school education, in general, results in as good if not better scores than those of a private school education (see here for an example but there are many like it) so in that regard, we also wouldn't need to "throw more money" around. (This public v. private comes back though in a negative way, however, because you can't say publics are failing if national studies are showing that they produce as good results as the privates - but that's another post.)

Neither of them address the global issue or the "does it impact national security" question.

Obama is very specific in how he would try to improve our system - he goes through four points: invest early, address teachers, make college affordable and work to engage and impress upon parents the importance of their role.

McCain references choice, getting rid of bad teachers, charter schools, not throwing money at the schools, rewarding teachers - including providing programs through which they can get experience and then wouldn't need to take exams or be certified, and address college student loan programs as far as availability, repayment schedules and eligibility.

On the question of "investing" or early childhood education, which several states
including mine (Ohio) are seriously considering funding at high levels (though financial crises are making hay for proponents and opponents), Christina Satkowski of The Early Ed Watch Blog, made this observation of the candidates' responses, before going to suggest what questions remain for each of the candidates:

These replies left us scratching our heads. Granted, the candidates
weren't given much time to elaborate on their proposals for early ed,
but we would like to hear more details.

I know what she means.

McCain's answer has two very obvious tensions that cause people who know a bit about this stuff to be confused:

1. He says he does not want to throw money at the schools, but then he says he wants to reward good teachers.  Merit pay has been bandied about a lot lately - but is that what he's referring to?  If not, what reward is he thinking of, and how does that mesh with not throwing money?  I know what that probably means - he doesn't just want to up the amount per child that's spent.  But as a presentation of ideas, this wasn't the best way to get that out there.

2. He talks about wanting to get rid of bad teachers, but then he also says that experience should be able to substitute for taking exams and certifications.  Well, that's kind of a move backwards - which isn't necessarily bad at all, but it certainly is not consistent with what the Bush administration and NCLB promotes (which is the notion of showing accountability by taking tests and meeting thresholds).  So again, his response isn't all that complete or logical - as others often criticize, he's hitting buzzwords, but they don't exactly go together.

Still, what's interesting about their responses is that it's actually McCain who is bringing up reform, while Obama is bringing up investment (which of course is the Democratic code word for spending, but again, many states are already looking into that direction and also couch it in terms of investing).  Interestingly, McCain just doesn't strike at that when he could have made a good argument about how burdensome that is for the states and so on.

I'd like to give a quick primer on McCain's buzzwords: Charters are alternative schools that contrast with traditional public schools. Vouchers provide an alternative payment structure to how we traditionally pay for school.  For anyone who isn't familiar with education lingo, both of those concepts, as he does mention, derive from the idea that parents should be given more choice and perhaps all choice for how and where their children should be educated. These concepts then form the basis for what some conservatives truly want: to dismantle and eliminate the U.S. Department of Education and re-distribute all its funding elsewhere.  This would lead to either privatizing education into an industry and/or forcing states and local entities to collect and redistribute and pay for all education costs.

Likelihood of that happening in any way at all in our lifetime? Nil, in my opinion.

Going back to what McCain's references mean, No Child Left Behind seeks to label schools and teachers, through testing and measurement, as "bad" performing teachers or "failing" schools.  Without going into all that NCLB is about, McCain's response is a good example of how the Bush administration and usually also Republicans and conservatives often (though NOT always) seek to use NCLB to demonstrate how public schools are not working (under the guise of holding them "accountable") so that then, when the schools do not meet the thresholds, parents can be given choices for moving kids, operators of charter schools can more easily move in (especially for-profit operations) and vouchers, as another mechanism of choice and moving moeny into the hands of parents and not the government, come into play.

A key problem with this somewhat partisan way of explaining NCLB is that Ted Kennedy had a lot to do with NCLB and many people, myself included, believe in accountability as a general concept and need. Kennedy and many other stakeholders in education believe that there is a place for charter schools - but as niche, specific schools run by parents and communities that are created to meet what the regular school district's already existing schools aren't providing.  Sadly, what's happened in some states, and very noticeably in mine, is that for-profit corporations have come in and failed the children as much as if not worse than the public schools and there's often little oversight. Again - this is a real local and state-level struggle with a lot of different perspectives about what works, how much we should pay for it, who really needs it and what percentage of kids actually benefit.

Also, vouchers, although a way to help move children from "failing" schools to better schools, are not supported, generally speaking, by public school proponents because they usually move the money out of the district and to either parochial schools or private independent schools, few of which have prices that can be met by the vouchers.

Those concerns are a good segue into the real hidden battle between Obama and McCain and thankfully, Schieffer gets to it next: Who governs this stuff and who pays for it? 

Traditionally, education is a state matter but to the extent that the federal government noses in (sometimes very much needed nosing in), it's often by creating unfunded mandates (programs that are required by the federal government to be provided but then the federal government appropriates no additional resources to the states or local entities for fulfilling those requirements). 

Here's Schieffer:

Schieffer: Do you think the federal government should play a larger role in the schools? And I mean, more federal money?

And Obama responded first:

Well, we have a tradition of local control of the schools and that's a tradition that has served us well. But I do think that it is important for the federal government to step up and help local school districts do some of the things they need to do.

Now we tried to do this under President Bush. He put forward No Child Left Behind. Unfortunately, they left the money behind for No Child Left Behind. And local school districts end up having more of a burden, a bunch of unfunded mandates, the same kind of thing that happened with special education where we did the right thing by saying every school should provide education to kids with special needs, but we never followed through on the promise of funding, and that left local school districts very cash-strapped.

So what I want to do is focus on early childhood education, providing teachers higher salaries in exchange for more support. Sen. McCain and I actually agree on two things that he just mentioned.

Charter schools, I doubled the number of charter schools in Illinois despite some reservations from teachers unions. I think it's important to foster competition inside the public schools.

And we also agree on the need for making sure that if we have bad
teachers that they are swiftly -- after given an opportunity to prove
themselves, if they can't hack it, then we need to move on because our
kids have to have their best future.

Where we disagree is on the idea that we can somehow give out vouchers -- give vouchers as a way of securing the problems in our education system. And I also have to disagree on Sen. McCain's record when it comes to college accessibility and affordability.

Recently his key economic adviser was asked about why he didn't seem to have some specific programs to help young people go to college and the response was, well, you know, we can't give money to every interest group that comes along.

I don't think America's youth are interest groups, I think they're our future. And this is an example of where we are going to have to prioritize. We can't say we're going to do things and then not explain in concrete terms how we're going to pay for it.

And if we're going to do some of the things you mentioned, like lowering loan rates or what have you, somebody has got to pay for it. It's not going to happen on its own.

Then McCain:

Well, sure. I'm sure you're aware, Sen. Obama, of the program in the
Washington, D.C., school system where vouchers are provided and there's a certain number, I think it's a thousand and some and some 9,000 parents asked to be eligible for that.

Because they wanted to have the same choice that you and I and Cindy and your wife have had. And that is because they wanted to choose the school that they thought was best for their children.

And we all know the state of the Washington, D.C., school system. That was vouchers. That was voucher, Sen. Obama. And I'm frankly surprised you didn't pay more attention to that example.

Now as far as the No Child Left Behind is concerned, it was a great first beginning in my view. It had its flaws, it had its problems, the first time we had looked at the issue of education in America from a nationwide perspective. And we need to fix a lot of the problems. We need to sit down and reauthorize it.

But, again, spending more money isn't always the answer. I think the
Head Start program is a great program. A lot of people, including me, said, look, it's not doing what it should do. By the third grade many times children who were in the Head Start program aren't any better off than the others.

Let's reform it. Let's reform it and fund it. That was, of course, out-of-bounds by the Democrats. We need to reform these programs. We need to have transparency. We need to have rewards. It's a system that cries out for accountability and transparency and the adequate funding.

And I just said to you earlier, town hall
meeting after town hall meeting, parents come with kids, children --
precious children who have autism. Sarah Palin knows about that better
than most. And we'll find and we'll spend the money, research, to find
the cause of autism. And we'll care for these young children. And all
Americans will open their wallets and their hearts to do so.

But to have a situation, as you mentioned in our earlier comments, that the most expensive education in the world is in the United States of America also means that it cries out for reform, as well.

And I will support those reforms, and I will fund the ones that are reformed. But I'm not going to continue to throw money at a problem. And I've got to tell you that vouchers, where they are requested and where they are agreed to, are a good and workable system. And it's been proven.

Hooboy.  Well, I'm sorry - let me have it in the comments, but really? John McCain just did not answer the question. He says leave NCLB, reauthorize NCLB. But then he does the contradicting stuff again: won't throw money, but we will reform and we will give adequate funding.  Vouchers, vouchers and don't you know? Vouchers.  But 9,000 in D.C. is not even a drop in the bucket. He applauds Head Start but then says it needs reform and Democrats won't allow it.  Frankly, it's just a jumble of an answer unless you know that he is throwing out the choice/charter/voucher/privatize/accountability lingo.

As for Obama, he doesn't provide much new information from what he said in the first portion of the education discussion, but he does indicate that the funding will come from somewhere and my assumption is that he intends for it to be the federal government, again, using the idea of investment as a way to make it more palatable - and logical.

Finally, Obama with a short comeback:

I'll just make a quick comment about vouchers in D.C. Sen. McCain's
absolutely right: The D.C. school system is in terrible shape, and it
has been for a very long time. And we've got a wonderful new
superintendent there who's working very hard with the young mayor there
to try...

Then another quick exchange:

McCain: Who supports vouchers.

Obama: ... who initiated -- actually, supports charters.

McCain: She supports vouchers, also.

But the -- but here's the thing, is that, even if Sen. McCain were to
say that vouchers were the way to go -- I disagree with him on this,
because the data doesn't show that it actually solves the problem -- the centerpiece of Sen. McCain's education policy is to increase the voucher program in D.C. by 2,000 slots.

That leaves all of you who live in the other 50 states without an education reform policy from Sen. McCain.

So if we are going to be serious about this issue, we've got to have a
president who is going to tackle it head-on. And that's what I intend
to do as president.

Schieffer: All right.

McCain: Because there's not enough vouchers; therefore, we shouldn't do it, even though it's working. I got it.

Schieffer: All right.

Here, by the way, is the official statement of the Mayor of DC and Superintendent of the DC Schools on vouchers:

Mayor Fenty and Chancellor Rhee strongly believe that all families in the District of Columbia must have access to excellent public school options, and are committed to ensuring that students in every ward are afforded this opportunity. While Chancellor Rhee hasn’t taken a formal
position on vouchers, she disagrees with the notion that vouchers are
the remedy for repairing the city’s school system.

Which is what I would expect of an urban district like D.C., based on my experience and observations of Cleveland.

Ultimately, neither candidate offered all that much more than any other partisan candidate for office might say regarding their party line on education, with one notable exception: Obama is in favor of using charters far more than many Democrats.  Public schools also tend to see charters as taking money away from and undermining public schools.  I am cautiously okay with charters, but not in the way Ohio has implemented them, allowing for for-profit management and eliminating the oversight office in 2005 which subsequently has led to audits of the charters that have concluded that many of them are not even able to be audited because their records are so poor.

In any case...given the financial crises, the Iraq conflict, and concerns about jobs and health care, I don't see education getting much more air time or attention, even in a short time after whomever takes office gets there.  That is a sad thing indeed because the failure of our education system, as Bob Schieffer notes, is in fact tied to our national security: we are our own best defense, and if we are not equipped with minds to do battle on whichever fronts necessary, there can be little doubt that we will continue to spiral away from and not into progress. 

Other excellent resources on the topic of our presidential candidates and the issue of education as a matter of national importance:

Obama's Education Plan: Visionary or Delusional? by Leslie Madsen-Brooks

McCain's Education Plan: Interesting Ideas and Tired Rhetoric by Leslie Madsen-Brooks

Ed in '08: an effort to get the candidates to dedicate an entire scheduled debate to the topic of education (similar to other niche debate desires)

Obama website information on education (Google results for "Obama speech on education")

Linda Darling-Hammond on Edwize blog re: why educators should support Obama on education

McCain website information on education (Google results for "McCain speech on education")

Disclosure: As a freelance writer, I've been writing about
education for several years. From 2004-2006, I was an independent
contractor with the KnowledgeWorks Foundation and wrote about the small schools reform effort in Euclid High School in NE Ohio, one of a number of schools across the country that participated in the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation's small schools reform effort, on which they spent $1 billion across 20 or so states.  That work required me to be in and around the schools and the people impacted by the reform effort for approximately 500 hours (10 hours/week for two full academic school years).

I've also written articles for Cleveland Family Magazine on how to choose private schools, and on Ohio's proficiency tests. Last spring, I wrote multiple articles on early college programs and college access for the urban education magazine, Catalyst Ohio. I taught Kindergarten and First Grade religious school at a Reform synagogue for three years, spent a year teaching English as a second language at the middle school level in Israel and did volunteer work through a Methodist mission in Kentucky teaching fourth grade during spring breaks while I was in college.

Also, because I believe our decisions about education relate to our own experiences as well as the needs of our children: I have three school-aged children, all of whom are in public school but also all of whom attended
Jewish pre-schools through either Pre-K or Kindergarten (and that was a Montessori Jewish Day School). My husband and I both went to public school our whole lives, except for college. I've served on the education committee of my synagogue for six years and I helped incorporate and run a parent advocacy group in my public school district that helps parents of children with special or gifted ed needs network (in Ohio, both ends of the spectrum are covered by the Office of Exceptional Education so that's why we decided on one advocacy group). The group was actually dissed by the PTA because we had our own ideas of what we wanted to do so I'm a bit of a renegade when it comes to PTA moms and I frequently write about what a slacker room mom I am etc.  In other words, I wouldn't hold me up as anyone special, but I do believe that no matter who you allow to educate your children, you are your child's best advocate (though not necessarily only advocate).  



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