THE RHETORIC on the presidential campaign trail has become so heated that it can seem as though Senators John McCain and Barack Obama do not see eye-to-eye on any public policy issue at all. But when it comes to U.S. schools, the candidates do share common goals, according to the two men's education advisors, who squared off in a debate at Columbia's Teachers College on Tuesday night, October 21.
Campaigns Policy Advisors: Lisa Graham Keegan, who served as Arizona's Superintendent of Public Instruction before becoming an education advisor to Senator McCain, and Linda Darling-Hammond, who teaches at Stanford's School of Education and is working for Senator Obama, both avowed that their bosses supported the goal of No Child Left Behind, which is to bring all U.S. students to proficiency in math and English by 2010. They also agreed that upgrading the national teacher workforce will be key to insuring American children receive solid educations. They differed, however—sometimes heatedly—on how the next president could realize those objectives.
McCain Campaign: Keep Spending Flat. In essence, Senator McCain believes flexibility and experimentation are the best mechanisms to turn around the nation's schools, while Senator Obama emphasizes investment and development. Because McCain has pledged to freeze domestic funding outside of entitlement programs like Medicare and social security, education spending would be flat lined under his administration. "There is just not one credible study that says what we really need to do is spend more money," Keegan said in defense of the senator's approach. Reallocating resources and investing in programs that provide non-traditional pathways to bring teachers into classrooms—like Teach for America, which places recent college graduates in high-need schools—would have a more profound impact.
Obama Campaign: Invest to Improve. Darling-Hammond countered that increasing spending was a necessary outlay to improve the country's education system. She highlighted Senator Obama's pledge to commit $10 billion for early childhood education, an investment Darling-Hammond said would be recouped many times over because it would result in higher graduation rates and ultimately fatter paychecks for students once they entered the workforce. She also pointed out that Senator Obama would make college more affordable for families by providing a refundable $4,000 tax credit. Funding these priorities was vital to preserving U.S. competitiveness in a global economy, she asserted: "We are falling behind in the investment race going on around the world and that is costing us in many, many ways."
The women did nod in agreement on some points. Both lamented that education had received scant attention in the media this election cycle. And they were similarly coy when asked who might be at the helm of the Department of Education next year. Perhaps because openly politicking for the job could hurt their chances, they declined to speculate on whether they would be members of a McCain or Obama administration.
Alexandra Starr has written for the New York Times Magazine, Slate,and the New Republic.
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