McCain v. Obama: The Thrilla for the Schoolhouse

Over the past two days, Eduflack has taken a close look at the educational platforms offered up by the two presidential campaigns.  Again, the ground rules were simple.  We looked at the campaigns’ plans as identified, laid out, and described on both candidates’ official websites.  No cheating from the speeches made by Lisa Keegan or Jon Schnur or other surrogates.  No interpreting what a few throw-away lines from the conventions meant.  Not even a few glimpses into both senators’ voting records in the congress these past four years (the time they were together).  No, we are here to measure vetted, official plan against vetted official plan.

The 10,000-Foot View
Just like the two campaigns, the two education platforms couldn’t be more different, particularly in terms of their rhetoric and the framing of the issues.  Yes, they both focused on the issues of early ed, K-12, and higher education.  But that’s a given.  Beyond that, their foci are quite different.  McCain’s plan is a running mantra of accountability and choice.  Obama’s is one of programs, resources, and opportunities.  McCain’s takeaway is one of improvement, where Obama is focused on the problems.  Interestingly, McCain seems more focused on change, while Obama seems keyed in on conserving what we already have in place.
The Buzz Words
Eduflack wouldn’t be doing his job if he didn’t focus on the words being used by the candidates and the power behind the rhetoric.  So let’s take a look at the hot words lists for each candidate:
* McCain — Standards, accountability, quality, empower, excellence, parents, effectiveness, choice
* Obama — High quality, opportunity, teachers, programs, support, reward
Areas of Agreement
Both campaigns recognize the need for a strong early childhood education program and both want to improve and simplify the financial aid process for those going to college.  Both recognize that NCLB needs work.  Obama seeks to improve and better fund it, McCain wants to build on its lessons.  Both support charter schools, and both want greater accountability for these school choice options.
Issues of Importance
Obama and McCain clearly come to the table with a different view of the federal role in education.  Again, Obama’s platform focuses on strengthening and improving funding for a number of existing federal programs, while adding funding and support for more efforts.  McCain is focused on innovation and local empowerment, almost re-embracing the old-school GOP role of locally controlled education.
What issues stand out for the two candidates?
* McCain — School-based decisionmaking, parental involvement, school choice, alternative certification, merit pay, virtual learning, higher standards, greater accountability
* Obama — Head Start and Early Head Start, math/science education, dropout prevention, afterschool programs, ELL, teacher recruitment and retention (and merit pay, albeit to a lesser degree than we hear on the stump), and college opportunities   
Again, McCain is talking ideas, Obama is speaking programs. It is an important distinction, particularly when we don’t know who will be calling the policy shots from either the Domestic Policy Council or the EdSec’s office.  So the devil is in the details.
Areas of Disagreement
It’s funny, but these are less areas of disagreement than they are issues of priority.  McCain and Obama simply aren’t focusing on many of the same issues.  Their degrees of importance really define the differences.  
On early childhood education, McCain is focused on Centers for Excellence, improving Head Start on a state-by-state basis.  He also emphasizes the need for standards and quality for our youngest learners. Obama believes early education is about getting as many kids as possible into programs.  Obama focuses on quadrupling the funding for Early Head Start, a program that McCain doesn’t even mention.
On K-12, McCain focuses on options, choice (charters and vouchers), and doing what it takes to boost student achievement (particularly principal empowerment).  Obama focuses on the programs that make our schools run — math/science, dropout prevention, afterschool, and college credits.   Obama also mentions charter schools, but his focus is on closing those that are low performing.
On teachers, the biggest difference is prominence.  Obama provides teachers with their own policy category; McCain embeds them in his K-12 platform.  For Obama, it is all about recruiting, training, retaining, and rewarding. For McCain, it is an issue of alternative certification (which Obama never mentions), incentive pay, and professional development.
On higher education, Obama wants new tax breaks, while McCain wants more research and simplified tax benefits.  McCain also emphasizes the need for information, particularly to parents (while Obama seems to avoid parents all together in his education platform).  Both want to fix the “broken” system of student lending, though.
By focusing so heavily on programs, Obama essentially calls for increased federal spending for education.  He pledges sizable funding increases for Early Head Start, NCLB, the Federal Charter School Program, dropout prevention, 21st Century Learning Centers, GEAR UP, TRIO, and Upward Bound.  He would also create a number of new federal initiatives, including Early Learning Challenge Grants, Make College a Reality, Teacher Service Scholarships, and the American Opportunity Tax Credit.  In today’s economic climate, this is a bold statement.  Paying for these programs either means eliminating current programs that don’t work (see Mike Petrilli’s suggestions at for a good start) or it means increasing the annual appropriation for the U.S. Department of Education.  Based on current politics, I’d say the latter is a near impossibility.
On the McCain side, the Republican nominee focuses on some new programs as well — including Centers for Excellence for Head Start, a grant program for online education opportunities, and Digital Passport Scholarships.  He also calls for funding for teacher merit pay, the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, and increased monies for Enhancing Education Through Technology.  Still a nice Christmas list, but far more affordable than his Democratic counterpart.
What’s Missing
You know me, I always like to dwell on the negative.  So I immediately jump to the issues that didn’t make the cut in developing the platform.  Neither candidate speaks to the idea of national education standards.  There is almost no discussion of student testing and the measurement of student performance.  Data and research-based practice and decisionmaking can’t be found here.  And while Obama mentions math and science, neither candidate focuses on STEM education, what Eduflack sees as a key to truly linking education, the economy, and our national strength.
Added to the list, McCain avoids ELL (strange for a senator from Arizona), high school dropouts, afterschool, and t
eacher education in general.  Obama avoids discussions of reading/literacy, alternative certification, online learning, and parental involvement.
So Now What?
Eduflack is not going to be so audacious as to make an endorsement of a presidential candidate based on his education platform.  (Those who know me well know where I stand.  And at the end of the day, my opinion is going to be a fairly uncommon one.  Having worked on the Hill for Democratic stalwarts like Robert Byrd and Bill Bradley and then spending so much time advocating for NCLB, Reading First, and accountability, there are few in the Eduflack mold.)  And who cares who I pick?  This above breakdown is to help others take their education priorities and see which candidate better addresses them in the official platform.
If these past 18 months are any indication, education is not a priority for either candidate.  It isn’t what they are out there stumping on, and it is not the red meat the voters want to hear or seem concerned about.  And anyone who has been in this town for more than a few weeks knows that a policy paper is barely worth the paper on which it is printed.
What this does, though, is it makes clear to Eduflack where the priorities are and what emphasis we should see, education wise, should candidate M or candidate O take the oath on a cold January day.  What does Eduflack see?
A McCain Department of Education is one of accountability, standards, and innovation.  Data-driven decisionmaking.  School choice opportunities.  A heavy emphasis on the role of technology, particularly in terms of online learning.  McCain also sees his ultimate customer as the parent, giving them a seat at the table in charting their child’s educational path.
No surprise, then, when we see some of the names on the “finalist” list for McCain EdSec — Lisa Keegan, New Orleans Supe Paul Vallas, and Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty at the top.  (I know some add former Massachusetts Gov. Jane Swift to the short list, but I fail to see how someone who called for the abolition of the U.S. Department of Education a decade ago is really the choice to head that same department today).   All steady, experienced hands to steer the ship.
An Obama Department of Education, though, would have a much different feel.  It almost seems more like a foundation, with a great number of programs running to achieve a common goal.  An Obama ED is one of teacher education, universal preK, increased supports, and improved paths to postsecondary education.  Obama’s ultimate customer — the teacher, without whom most reforms will fail before the get off the ground.
And the tea leaves on an Obama EdSec?  We have the usual suspects, the programmatic heads such as former NC Gov. Jim Hunt.  But we also have out-of-the-box names like New Leaders for New Schools founder Jon Schnur.  The future direction of Obama ed may very well hinge on the leadership qualities he seeks from an EdSec. 
There you have it, the education presidential campaign gospel according to Eduflack.  Let the reflections, debates, and attacks begin.

3 thoughts on “McCain v. Obama: The Thrilla for the Schoolhouse

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