You are here


The Silent Issue

With education getting short shrift this election season, where do Sens. McCain and Obama really stand on improving schools, and how might their plans impact your district?


Former 2008 presidential hopeful Gov. Bill Richardson (D-N.M.) proudly declared during a Democratic debate in late 2007, "I want to be the education president." You would be hard-pressed to find similar claims in the public statements of the current presumptive nominees-Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Barack Obama (D-Ill.). It might be an overstatement to say that education has not factored into their campaigns at all, but it hasn't exactly loomed large either.

"When people are losing their home through foreclosures or losing their jobs ... it's hard to get a focus on education," news anchor and author Jim Lehrer said at the National School Boards Association annual conference in March. "The candidates are largely ignoring the issue."

In a rousing moment during a debate in February, Obama passionately stated, "We're going to have to invest in infrastructure. We have to invest in science and technology. We have to vastly improve our education system. We have to look at energy, and the potential for creating green jobs."

Education has recently enjoyed some increased popularity through hot-button issues like the federal No Child Left Behind law and merit pay, but when framed in such lofty rhetoric, it has functioned more like a political middle child-sandwiched between other things and rarely getting the undivided attention it deserves.

Compare the numbers. In a 2000 Harris poll, 25 percent of Americans identified education as one of the two most important issues for the government to address, but by 2007 that percentage had dropped to only seven. And in a 2000 Gallup poll, about 17 percent of Americans saw education as "the most important problem" facing the country. For the same poll in early 2008, that number was down to 3 percent.

Polls can be highly subjective and biased, but they do beg the question: If education was ever truly a problem, it must not be anymore-right?

Glory Days

Cynics might characterize any hoopla over candidates' lack of campaigning on education as old hat, but the fact of the matter is that the 2008 presidential election is one of the few recent elections in which education has not played a very large role, experts say.

"Education has been a hot topic in past elections, marked by energetic reform," says Chester E. Finn Jr., president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a Washington D.C.-based education reform group. "Now in 2008 it's a nonissue."

George H.W. Bush wanted to be known as an education president during his 1988 campaign, says Finn, and of course George W. Bush ran for president as the education reformer from Texas who pledged to improve schools, increase accountability and eliminate the achievement gap throughout the country. (Administrators have his enactment of NCLB as a result.)

Bill Clinton ran twice with education as a significant part of his campaign, and upon election his administration had a goal of connecting every classroom and every library to the Internet.

"This is the first time since either 1980 or 1984-depending on how you parse the Reagan second term election-that education has not loomed large, or at least large-ish as a presidential campaign issue," says Finn, who adds that it was in 1983, after all, when the landmark report A Nation at Risk came out.

"The two mega-issues are always peace and prosperity. When one of them is on the table in a particular year, that's the dominant issue," says William Galston, a former policy adviser to President Clinton and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, a public policy think tank. "When they're both on the table simultaneously, that is the election."

Today, when education surfaces on the campaign trail through NCLB discussions, McCain expresses nothing but support for the law and its aims to increase school accountability and "focus attention on the realities of how students perform against a common standard." Obama, on the other hand, has been extremely critical of its implementation; he vows not to kill it but to reform it and increase its funding.


A Troubling Law

President Bush may have labeled his signature domestic policy initiative of No Child Left Behind a "succeeding bipartisan achievement" during his last State of the Union address in January, but the only bipartisan success about it is that both congressional Republicans and Democrats agree that it needs reform.

It is not the legislation's goals that are sparking the debate-most education and business leaders and politicians, presidential candidates included, are in agreement on its foundations of accountability, assessment and disaggregated data-but the nature of its implementation.

"You can go to the most conservative district and the most liberal district and you'll hear this weird right-left coalition attacking the same bill," said Marc Lampkin, executive director of Strong American Schools' Ed in '08 campaign, a public awareness campaign aimed at making education a top priority during the election, during a Washington, D.C., panel discussion in March.

Most congressional Democrats no longer defer to the law's original backers, Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.) and Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.), "and Republicans are no more likely to defer to Bush's successor, even if he is a Republican," says Galston.

Still, aside from pushing for greater flexibility for children with disabilities and limited English profi ciency, McCain has yet to advocate any wholesale changes to the law. Those in his camp say he will soon, though.

"Sen. McCain is very committed to the information and data that NCLB has insisted on and wants it strengthened," says Lisa Graham Keegan, an education advisor for McCain and former Arizona superintendent of public instruction. "He wants to make sure we focus our efforts on what is effective."

"When people are losing their home through foreclosures or losing their jobs ... it's hard to get a focus on education." -News anchor and author Jim Lehrer

Reg Weaver, president of the National Education Association, the nation's largest teachers union, believes a McCain administration would struggle to keep NCLB relatively the same. "He will definitely have a challenge," he says. "The number of Republicans against the current form of the law is growing."

Meanwhile, Sen. Obama has made it abundantly clear that Bush's education law is a poorly executed unfunded mandate. He plans to help states write a broader range of assessments to evaluate student knowledge and to improve its accountability system to focus more on improvement than punishment.

"One of the failures of NCLB," he said during a debate in February, "is that it is so narrowly focused on standardized tests that it has pushed out a lot of important learning that needs to take place. Foreign language is one of those areas that has been neglected. I want to put more resources into it."


Dueling Platforms

Although it might be a topic of interest on the campaign trail, neither candidate is using NCLB as the sole basis for a comprehensive education strategy. According to their written plans and occasional discussions, both McCain and Obama have unique, sometimes clashing philosophies on improving schools.

Obama's plans for education follow a liberal tradition that stresses ensured access to early childhood education programs, making science and math education a national priority, meeting the needs of 21st century learners, and recruiting, supporting and rewarding high-quality teachers and school leaders.

Similarly, McCain emphasizes a teacher-centered education process that rewards teachers through initiatives like differentiated pay structures and increased Title II monies but that also gives choices to parents using programs such as private-school vouchers. "Parents need to be empowered to make decisions, but it's all for nothing if there aren't high quality teachers," says Keegan.

Both candidates support more pay for teachers who meet special kinds of school and student needs or reach high levels of performance measured against professional teaching standards, and both have spoken out on revamping NCLB. But many of their similarities end there.

Obama strongly opposes private-school vouchers, believing they take away needed resources for public schools. McCain, however, argues that public support for education should follow children into any school the parent chooses, and that school-choice initiatives such as vouchersfoster competition between schools.

Obama's "Zero to Five" early childhood education plan invests $10 billion per year (double the current federal money) for increased Head Start funding and for state grants to help ensure that all children have access to preschool and to affordable and high-quality child care. McCain has not yet proposed any early childhood education program.

Unlike McCain, Obama has been vocal about the need for schools to better serve 21st century learners, and one project he wants to undertake is the creation of 20 "innovation districts" throughout the country. His plan would have districts apply for grants to implement education reforms, and 20 would receive yearly appropriations of $75 million, which would then be viewed as models of educational innovation in other districts.

The Efficacy Question

Even with the candidates' education plans, there are some skeptics who argue that U.S. presidents and systemic K12 school reform just do not mix.

"At the end of the day there's not much the president can do about teaching and learning in American schools, unless there's a fundamental realignment of American government," says Finn. "That is to say, if we wanted an administration of education with educators employed by the federal administration of education, handed their books by the administration of education, trained by the administration of education, then maybe a president would make a difference in what is taught and learned in schools."

Such claims, however, might stem directly from what other scholars call an "inconsistent and shortsighted" record of federaleducation policy, despite 25 years of reform sparked by A Nation at Risk, examined in a new report from the Forum for Education and Democracy.

The report, "Democracy at Risk," argues that while many promising initiatives have been developed, long-term policies to take them to scale-through support for new organizational designs, investments in low-wealth schools andhighly focused research and development-have been absent.

Still others view education policy in more practical terms.

"Education might not seem like a front burner issue right now," says newly appointed AASA executive director Daniel A. Domenech, "but it's not going away, and the next president will be forced to face these issues."

Lampkin rejects the notion that the president can't do very much when it comes to schools.

"If the next president said he is going to make improving schools or raising standards or fixing the test a priority and spends every day for a period of time making sure we do it, and calls in the governors, that is impactful," he says. "There is not a more forceful voice for change on the face of the Earth than when the U.S. president stands before the American people and says, 'We need to do it.' That's what we need on this issue. We need 'can do,' not 'can't do.'"