Image: Barack Obama
Saul Loeb  /  AFP - Getty Images file
Sen. Barack Obama speaks during a town hall discussion on education in the library at Granby High School in Norfolk, Va., on Sept. 10.
By Producer
msnbc.com
updated 10/27/2008 6:45:07 PM ET 2008-10-27T22:45:07

This election season, msnbc.com is presenting a weekly series assessing the issues and controversies that the next president will confront once he takes the oath of office.

This week, we look at the state of public elementary and secondary education, and where the candidates stand on funding, school choice and teacher pay.

Why it matters
The United States spent nearly $72 billion on elementary and secondary education in 2007, which is the highest in terms of expenditure per student and as percentage of gross domestic product, among the G-8 countries, according to the Department of Education.

But according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the United States trails many developed countries in educational quality. In 2003, 15-year-olds ranked in 24th, 19th, and 12th of 38 nations in mathematics, science, and reading, respectively.

This deficit was the focus of the last question of the final presidential debate on October 15.

Moderator Bob Schieffer asked presidential candidates Sen. John McCain and Sen. Barack Obama how they would employ the federal government to raise the United States’ international standing in elementary and secondary education.

The candidates agreed on the importance of the mission.

“This probably has more to do with our economic future than anything and that means it also has a national security implication,” said Obama. “There’s never been a nation on earth that saw its economy decline and continued to maintain its primacy as a military power.”

Video: Improving American education

McCain tied education to social equality, calling it “the civil rights issue of the 21st century.”

Invoking the racial struggles of the 1960s, he continued: “There’s no doubt that we have achieved equal access to schools in America after a long and difficult and terrible struggle.”

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But beyond the notion that the United States must improve its public school systems, McCain and Obama agree on little in terms of the role of the federal government in doing so.

Where the candidates stand
In 2000, Gov. George W. Bush ran his successful presidential campaign focusing largely on education reform at the federal level – a focus that had rarely been used to the same extent by a Republican seeking national office.

Bush’s education proposals culminated in the passage of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, which bases the allocation of federal funds for schools on state-administered achievement tests.

Many education interest groups, such as the National Education Association, criticized the effectiveness of No Child Left Behind, charging that its emphasis on testing provides incentive for states to lower achievement goals and schools to teach students to master the test instead of developing critical-thinking skills.

“Right now it’s a high-stakes test; it’s a single test once a year and really has nothing to do with the individual student,” Dennis Van Roekel, president of the NEA, told msnbc.com.

“We’re going need some time doing some good research to figure out how do we adequately measure if students are learning,” he added.

Analyze this! Review the presidential debateObama, who is backed by the NEA, echoes this sentiment in his education policy, saying that although states should continue to oversee student assessments, the federal government should increase funding for “states to implement a broader range of assessments.”

His plan does not, however, specify how much federal funding of assessments should be increased.

In the Oct. 15 presidential debate, McCain countered his opponent’s plan, saying “Throwing money at the problem is not the answer,” adding, “You will find that some of the worst school systems in America get the most money per student.”

McCain’s stance against increased federal funding is echoed by the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank in Washington. “We should be hesitant to look to Washington to solve the problems in education” said Dan Lips, a senior policy analyst who specializes in federal and state education issues.

“One of the problems that we’ve seen is that federal funding comes with a lot of regulations and bureaucracy, and at the end of the day, much of that funding that Congress provides for education ends up being spent outside the classroom on bureaucracy and administration,” said Lips.

Charter schools or vouchers?
Maintaining that No Child Left Behind is “only the beginning of education reform,” McCain places more emphasis on school choice, saying that competition among schools will foster improved performance.

McCain supports charter schools – institutions that receive public money but are freed from some of the rules and regulations that govern other public schools in exchange for higher standards. The Arizona senator also lauds school vouchers — government-issued certificates that allow parents to apply public money to tuition at a school of their choice.

“Choice and competition amongst schools is one of the key elements that’s already been proven in places like New Orleans and New York City and other places,” McCain said during the debate, chastizing his opponent for not acknowledging the utility of vouchers in the Washington, D.C. public school system.

Obama countered that McCain placed too much emphasis on school choice, saying, “The centerpiece of Senator McCain’s education policy is to increase the voucher program in D.C. by 2,000 slots. That leaves all of you who live in the other 50 states without an education reform policy from Senator McCain.”

Like Obama, the NEA supports charters but opposes vouchers, saying that removing a small number of students from a faltering public school system does not address the root of the problem.

“It’s not a good solution to me that if we can’t provide a good education for children, we take 2,000 out and leave 63 or 65 thousand behind. That’s not a solution. So that’s why we believe vouchers do not solve the problem; they’re a ticket to nowhere,” said Van Roekel.

But Lips maintains that voucher programs allow students from lower socio-economic backgrounds to have greater education opportunities, while fostering competition among schools.

“I’m disappointed to see Obama oppose voucher programs, especially considering in his own life he chooses to send his kids to a private school,” said Lips.

McCain countered his opponent’s claim that vouchers do not attack the root of poor education, saying sarcastically at the debate, “because there’s not enough vouchers; therefore, we shouldn’t do it, even though it’s working. I got it.”

Unanswered questions
Obama angered many teachers and administrators, including the NEA, by telling the 3.2 million member group that he supported merit-based pay for teachers – a measure that the organization has long opposed, given the potential for pay increases based on arbitrary standards or favoritism.

Video: McCain praises Obama at NAACP convention After winning his long primary fight with Sen. Hillary Clinton, Obama earned the endorsement of the group, and touched on merit-based pay in a speech to the organization in July.

“Now I know this wasn’t necessarily the most popular part of my speech last year, but I said it then and I’m saying it again now because it’s what I believe,” he said in his address.

The NEA has since tempered its criticism of Obama’s policy.

“Obama has said clearly that he opposes the old merit pay, where you don’t really know what the measurements are and it’s decided by a principal,” said Van Roekel. “He opposes performance pay that’s based on test scores, and that’s very important to us because that is consistent with our policies, also.”

Van Roekel said he would like to see an Obama administration establish an independent education research institute, drawing on the National Institute of Health as a model, with funding of $60 million to $70 million a year, for 10 years. He hopes this research organization would serve to set standards that could be used to assess teacher pay raises.

Video: Obama lays out health, education reform Obama’s education plan calls for a “high-quality, nationally-available teacher performance assessment that measures actual teaching skill in content areas,” but does not spell out specific spending projections for such a project.

Meanwhile, McCain has been vague on what parts of the No Child Left Behind Act are in need of reform, and what kind of funding changes would be required.

He has also come out in favor of merit-based pay, as well as pay increases for teachers who relocate to “challenging education settings” (such as inner-city or rural schools) receiving federal funds. But unlike Obama, he says that test scores and principals should be used to assess teacher performance, along with other issues, such as peer evaluations and student improvement.

Potential pitfalls for the next president
If McCain is elected on Nov. 4, he will likely have to work with what appears to be a very Democratic Congress, possibly including a filibuster-proof Senate.

That would make it unlikely that a president could push through reduced federal funding for education, which is backed by many conservative groups, including the Heritage Foundation. 

The Obama campaign has acknowledged that, given the grim economy, some of his spending proposals may have to be reined in. Though the campaign has only said that some foreign aid may have to be cut, spending draw-downs could affect education spending, too.

However, given the vigor that Obama has used to tie quality education to a thriving economy, he seems likely to push for increasing federal funding for public elementary and secondary education.

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