Obama Opens Schools Debate With McCain

WASHINGTON

Democrat Barack Obama reached for middle ground on education this week, opening a debate with John McCain over who would do more to put good teachers in classrooms and help parents find alternatives to bad schools.

Conceding that both parties have worthy ideas, Obama set out to prove that he’s not captive to teachers unions, as his rival claims, and that there is more talk than action in McCain’s plans for schools.

McCain tossed red meat to Republicans at their convention last week, saying Obama wants schools to answer to unions and entrenched bureaucracies, while he would hold them accountable to parents and kids.

A look at where the presidential candidates stand on some key education issues:

SCHOOL CHOICE

For years, “school choice” has meant giving taxpayer dollars vouchers to parents to send kids to private school if their neighborhood schools were bad. Charter schools are in the mix too; they are publicly funded but operate independently, free from some of the rules that constrain regular schools.

McCain says he’s for school choice, and he got big applause when he talked it up last week at the Republican convention.

“Parents deserve a choice in the education of their children,” he said. “And I intend to give it to them.”

But McCain is not proposing a federal voucher plan. Instead, he wants to expand a voucher program in the District of Columbia only.

The Arizona senator did propose a federal voucher program when he ran for president in 2000, but his advisers say President Bush’s No Child Left Behind Law, enacted in 2002, is aimed at giving parents more choice. McCain would make improvements to that; for example, he would expand children’s access to tutoring services.

No Child Left Behind lets parents transfer their children from failing schools to better-performing public or charter schools assuming there is a better school in the area, which is not always the case. Obama doesn’t think vouchers are the answer; many Democrats agree. On Tuesday, the Illinois senator gave his answer to the school-choice dilemma: Create an array of new public schools, and double the federal money for charter schools to more than $400 million.

“Charter schools that are successful will get the support they need to grow,” Obama said in Riverside, Ohio. “And charters that aren’t will get shut down. I want experimentation, but I also want accountability.”

Obama talked about education again Wednesday at a campaign stop at a Norfolk, Va., high school.

NO CHILD LEFT BEHIND

The next president will inherit the immensely unpopular No Child Left Behind education law. The law is so disliked, a majority of voters said they would be more likely to vote for someone seeking to repeal the law, according to an AP-Yahoo News poll in June.

Yet voters do not have that choice. Neither Obama nor McCain seeks to do away with the law, which still has bipartisan support on Capitol Hill.

Instead, Obama and McCain each say they would keep the law and make it better.

“I don’t think we should scrap it,” McCain said earlier this year in Youngstown, Ohio. “People say, `Just scrap it.’ I think it needs to be built on, revised and fixed.”

Obama said Tuesday, “Of course, we have to fix the broken promises of No Child Left Behind.”

But the question remains just how the candidates, Obama in particular, would “fix” the law.

No Child Left Behind requires annual state tests in reading and math. The goal is that by 2014, every pupil will be able to read and do math at their grade level. The law imposes sanctions on schools that fail to make progress.

Obama has criticized annual tests, which has the law’s supporters worried he might gut an essential requirement. And he has the backing of teachers’ unions, which strongly dislike the law.

“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,” Obama said Tuesday. “Let’s finally help our teachers and principals develop a curriculum and assessments that teach our kids to become more than just good test-takers.”

Congress and the White House will be in no hurry to tackle No Child Left Behind, which was due for a rewrite last year; the economy, the war and health care are more pressing concerns.

TEACHER QUALITY

In an effort to get better teachers into classrooms, both candidates support tying teacher pay to student performance.

It’s a sticky issue for Obama, who was booed when he mentioned his support for performance pay raises in an address via satellite to the National Education Association.

And so Obama is trying to accommodate teachers who might be hostile to the idea, saying he wants performance pay raises to be negotiated by teachers, not imposed on them. And he says raises should be tied to, but not based solely on, standardized test scores.

“We can do this,” Obama said Tuesday. “From Prince George’s County in Maryland to Denver, Colo., we’re seeing teachers and school boards coming together to design performance pay plans.”

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