Presidential candidates John McCain and Barack Obama offer different visions for how the federal government can help America's students get ahead.
Senator McCain's drumbeat is parental choice and empowerment - making it easier for students in substandard schools to take funding with them, whether to a tutoring company or another public or private school. Senator Obama's thrust is strategic investment - more federal dollars to put good teachers into high-needs schools, increase charter-school options, and boost early childhood development to stave off achievement gaps.
But in an election dominated by economics, war, and a surprise vice presidential pick, such education issues resemble a kid in the back of the class, frantically waving for attention. Still, a growing chorus of business and education-reform advocates are on that kid's side. They hope that whoever becomes the next president will help create the educational equivalent of the "Sputnik moment" - when America reached for the moon.
Whose vision will enter the Oval Office?
"The key difference is that Obama puts the emphasis on improving the public schools, working through the schools themselves, and McCain believes in outside pressures through the free market," says Jack Jennings, president of the Center on Education Policy, a nonprofit research group in Washington that advocates for more-effective public schools.
While McCain has offered several policies to increase parental choice, such as an expansion of a voucher program in the District of Columbia, he has not put out a broad voucher proposal, senior policy adviser Douglas Holtz-Eakin says.
McCain energized the audience at the Republican National Convention when he emphasized standing up to entrenched interests in education, saying, "We need to shake up failed school bureaucracies with competition, ... attract and reward good teachers, and help bad teachers find another line of work." By contrast, Mr. Holtz-Eakin says, "Senator Obama's not really taking on ... the unions, the school boards, the entire hierarchy."
Obama has been endorsed by the major teachers unions, as Democratic candidates typically are. But he prompted boos from union members this summer by embracing aspects of accountability that they traditionally oppose.
Obama's plan, for instance, supports merit-pay plans, if developed in cooperation with teachers. In a speech on education this month in Dayton, Ohio, he said, "[We] need to give every child the assurance that they'll have the teacher they need to be successful.... Teachers who are doing a poor job, they've got to get extra support, but if they don't improve, then they have to be replaced."
"[Obama] has really been a champion for investment in our kids ... but at the same time pushing hard on accountability, on standards, on parental choice in a way that strengthens public education," Jonathan Schnur, an adviser to Obama, said at the Aspen Institute's recent national education summit in Washington.
One of Obama's criticisms of the federal No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) is that it has asked schools to achieve vastly more without delivering the resources promised when it passed with bipartisan support in 2001. His campaign criticizes McCain for planning to hold education spending even and just reallocate the dollars. Obama proposes to spend an additional $19 billion on his pre-K-12 proposals by using money from cuts in other parts of the federal budget.
Both candidates have called attention to the need for high-quality teaching, particularly in underperforming schools. McCain wants to give states incentives to recruit teachers from among the top 25 percent of college graduates. Obama's education plan is longer and more detailed than McCain's, including details on recruiting, training, and retaining teachers. One proposal would pay for teacher education for those willing to work four years in a hard-to-staff location or field, such as special education.
The two candidates also share a hesitancy to offer much detail about how they would handle the key education item come January: the long overdue reauthorization of NCLB. "They're doing this dance of talking about education without talking about No Child Left Behind," says Michael Petrilli, a vice president at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a research group in Washington that supports standards and school choice. "A lot of the country hates No Child Left Behind ... and yet the principles within the law around accountability and transparency both candidates want to embrace, because they want to show they are reformers."
Both campaigns have praised the goals of NCLB and suggested they would make changes to it, such as testing the individual gains of students rather than relying on group averages. But "the guts of it, test-based accountability, that's likely to stay," says Patrick McGuinn, a political scientist at Drew University in Madison, N.J.
The law has prompted splits within each party. Among Republicans, one camp wants to continue NCLB's momentum, while another says control should be returned to states and local school districts. A key education adviser to McCain, former Arizona schools superintendent Lisa Graham Keegan, has said McCain will champion assessment and federal accountability. While education circles debate how to even out vastly different state standards, she said during last week's Washington summit, "what would concern me is if we take our eye off the improvement of the kids in the classroom today. We've got data right now [showing low achievement]."
Among Democrats, teachers unions and civil rights groups are facing off over issues such as the law's testing regimen. Obama has acknowledged both sides: "Don't tell us that the only way to teach a child is to spend most of the year preparing him to fill in a few bubbles on a standardized test," he said in Dayton. Yet his plan is not to throw out tests, but rather to help states develop broader assessments to measure skills such as problem-solving and scientific investigation.
A Sample of Obama's Policy Proposals:
Double funding for quality charter schools.
Invest in and improve teaching.
Require professional accreditation of teacher preparation programs.
Expand mentoring for beginner teachers and give them a stipend during training in exchange for service in a high-needs district.
Support districts that work with teachers to create compensation systems that recognize accomplishment in the classroom and leadership in hard-to-staff locations.
$200 million in grants for longer school days or school years to assist students in need.
Double funding for after-school 21st Century Learning Centers.
Help create appropriate tests for students learning English and hold schools accountable for making sure they reach graduation.
Expand tax credits so low-income families can receive up to 50 percent credit for child-care expenses.
Grants to promote "zero to five" efforts focused on young children and parents, and to help states move toward voluntary universal preschool.
Increase Head Start funding, quadruple the size of Early Head Start, and improve the quality of both.
Create an American Opportunity Tax Credit - a $4,000 tax credit per year for low- and moderate-income students to attend college for up to four years, in exchange for community service (those not earning enough to pay taxes would also qualify).
Simplify the application for financial aid by allowing people to check a box on their tax return to determine aid eligibility.
Community College Partnership Program to reward schools where more students graduate or transfer to four-year colleges.
A Sample of McCain's Policy Proposals
Expand online learning.
$500 million of current education funds would go toward building virtual schools.
$250 million would support states to expand online offerings.
$250 million would create "digital passport scholarships" to help low-income students do online courses or tutoring.
Encourage alternative teacher certification and give states incentives to recruit teachers from the top 25 percent of their college class.
Bonuses to teachers who locate in challenging settings and raise student achievement.
In schools failing to meet federal standards, allow students to access tutoring more quickly. Tutoring providers certified by the federal government would be able to market directly to parents and be paid directly, rather than through the child's school.
Create Centers of Excellence in Head Start. One Head Start Center in each state would be chosen as a model and receive a grant to expand its reach and share best practices.
Simplify higher education tax benefits and federal financial aid so that more families understand their eligibility.