Mirror of Justice

A blog dedicated to the development of Catholic legal theory.
Affiliated with the Program on Church, State & Society at Notre Dame Law School.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Update: Education Policy and the Presidential Campaign

In a previous post, I discussed at some length the question of eduational policy and reform, which I described as the most neglected issue in the current presidential campaign. And yet access to quality education is vital as a powerful engine for economic progress, especially among the poor, and probably ranks as the government benefit of greatest importance to most American families.

In the last presidential debate, we heard more than previously on education from the candidates in their most prominent appearances before the American public. As the Chronicle of Higher Education says, “[i]n the last question in the last of three presidential debates, John McCain and Barack Obama fielded their first, and only, question in these forums that focused squarely on education policy.” (A full transcript of the third and last debate may be found here; you can scroll to the end for the education discussion.) In general, the candidates’ remarks fit comfortably into the categories that I had outlined in my earlier post.

Despite portraying himself as the candidate of change, Senator Obama largely adhered to longstanding liberal preferences and to the platform of the teachers’ unions by offering to spend more federal money on education. Although he said in passing that both more money and reform were needed, he proceeded to ignore reform and speak only about spending programs, such as for expanded pre-kindergarten programs and increased pay to teachers. Obama seemed not to appreciate the irony of his litany of spending proposals in light of the question that had been posed by moderator Bob Schieffer. Schieffer had highlighted that the United States already spends more money per capita on education than any other nation, but with much less in educational achievement to show for it.

Senator Obama concluded his initial remarks on education by urging parents to take greater responsibility by turning off the television and taking away video games and working to “instill[] that thirst for knowledge that our students need.” Obama did not, however, offer any hope or choice for those kids “thirsting for knowledge” who arrive at failing public schools in places like the District of Columbia or Cleveland, where record-setting public funding rates has led to little improvement in the quality of public education.

Senator McCain then characterized education as the “civil rights issue of the 21st century.” Lauding the achievements of the civil rights struggle for “equal access to schools in America,” McCain then asked the pertinent question for today: “But what is the advantage in a low income area of sending a child to a failed school and that being your only choice?” More pointedly and personally, McCain argued that “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.”

In response, Senator Obama pointed to charter schools and said that he agrees it is “important to foster competition inside the public schools” (emphasis added). However, returning to his strong opposition to vouchers for poor families who wish to choose private educational opportunities, Obama said that he disagreed with McCain “on the idea that we can somehow give out vouchers—give vouchers as a way of securing the problems in our education system.”

The two candidates sparred over their contrasting positions on the current voucher program for the District of Columbia school system, which is the only public school system that falls directly under federal control. Senator McCain touted his support for that program, noting that 9,000 families had applied for only 1,000 vouchers and arguing that choice opportunities should be increased. Senator Obama insisted that the data doesn’t support vouchers as the answer and noted that a program for vouchers in the District of Columbia doesn’t address educational policy in the remaining 50 states. As the moderator sought to cut off the discussion, McCain tried to insert a rebuttal that the D.C. voucher program was working as well as could be expected but that the number of vouchers allowed remained too small to offer meaningful alternatives to failing schools in the district.

Earlier, Senator Obama had also addressed the question of the federal role in education. While saying that “we have a tradition of local control of the schools and that's a tradition that has served us well,” he nonetheless insisted “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.” He criticized the “No Child Left Behind” program for imposing burdens on local schools without providing greater federal funding to assist in meeting those higher standards. Interestingly, when referring critically to the problem of “unfunded mandates,” Senator Obama’s solution was not to reduce federal mandates but rather to increase federal spending to support such mandates. As an example he spoke about what “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.” Thus, Obama is favorably disposed to federal regulation of education, within limits, provided that increased federal spending accompanies that regulation.

As had been much anticipated, the controversial subject of Senator Obama’s past associations with radical and former domestic terrorist Bill Ayers was raised during the debate. But overlooked was the specific educational character of some of the foundation work on which Obama and Ayers participated together and what those educational initiatives might reveal about Obama’s attitude toward and competence of his approach to education.

As discussed in my earlier post, Obama’s only prior executive experience—and one of the few matters of substance on which he has an actual record in public service—consists of his prominent role as the leader of the Chicago Annenberg Challenge in the 1990s. This was a well-funded effort, supported by the political and social establishment in Chicago, to bring about reform and improvement in public education. The picture that emerges from the Chicago Annenberg Challenge is not a pretty one. Even acknowledging that many mainstream projects were included within this well-funded program, Obama nonetheless also agreed to subordinate some substantive math and science educational proposals in favor of diverting funding to Ayers’s questionable initiatives to politicize public education and radicalize public school children. More importantly, the overall effort was a depressing failure. As reported by a comprehensize evaluation of the program (here), after spending $100 million on public school enhancement, the Obama-chaired Chicago Annenberg Challenge failed to bring about any significant progress on student educational achievement, student academic engagement, or student social competence.

Despite this disastrous and textbook example of the futility of simply throwing money at public education, while tracking the nostrums of the liberal education establishment, Obama’s present educational proposals as a candidate suggest that he learned nothing of substance from this sobering experience. Under an Obama Administration, the future of educational quality and equal access does not look bright.

Greg Sisk


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