Throughout this prolonged presidential campaign the three main candidates - Senators John S. McCain III (R-AZ), Barack H. Obama (D-IL), and Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-NY) - have spent most of their time arguing about the war in Iraq, the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), the housing crisis, the economy and healthcare. Oh yes, and change of one sort or another, although the specifics of their calls for change are difficult to discern. Change for its own sake is not necessarily a positive idea, and once we reach the general election campaign, McCain and the Democratic nominee will have to provide more details about what he or she wants to change and why. Of course, details do not provide good soundbytes for the nightly news, whereas "change" does, but educated voters will want to know what they should expect for the next four years.
One of the issues the candidates have not discussed is education. What is the role of the Federal Government in education and what do they propose to do about the abysmal public schools in America? These questions and more for the most part have remained unanswered in their speeches. A quick perusal of their campaign websites, however, gives some revealing answers about their positions on education.
McCain, the Republican nominee, begins by stating that he "understands that we are a nation committed to equal opportunity, and there is no equal opportunity without equal access to excellent education." Fair enough. He proceeds to note that parents should be able to choose the school their children attend, criticizing Members of Congress who send their own children to private schools but refuse to support school choice for others. Then he uses another "c" word - "we should let [schools] compete for the most effective, character-building teachers, hire them, and reward them." Choice and competition, two very effective tools for reforming our schools. I would add a third "c" to that list - curriculum - but, as education should be a local issue, curriculum must be reformed at the state or district level. Finally, McCain claims that he will "pursue reforms that address the underlying cultural problems in our education system - a system that still seeks to avoid genuine accountability and responsibility for producing well-educated children." What these cultural problems are he does not say. Most likely they would begin with the stranglehold teachers' unions have over the education system, stifling any dissent from or attempt to change the status quo. There is also the problem of family structure and support in many working-class families but the President of the United States cannot impose a top-down change in the nuclear family. The family is the building block of American society, not another social group to be manipulated by bureaucrats and politicians (though some certainly are trying).
Clinton is more precise in her education proposal. She begins by explaining her previous work with children, including a stint as a staff attorney for the Children's Defense Fund and various posts in Arkansas before her sojourn as First Lady. Her current education proposal outlines new policies for each stage of education, beginning with early childhood. She wants prekindergarten for all four-year olds and nurse home visitations to help new parents develop parenting skills. The former would do nothing to change the current dismal state of education while the latter would be an expensive and invasive new mandate. For K-12 Clinton proposes ending No Child Left Behind (NCLB), which is not a bad idea. She also wants to "recruit and retain thousands more outstanding teachers and principals, especially in urban and rural areas" and "cut the minority drop-out rate in half," although her solution is to throw $1 billion more at them, providing "multiple pathways to graduation," whatever that means. My favorite, though, is her goal of creating "'Green Schools' in order to reduce energy costs and eliminate environmental hazards that can hinder children's development." What more do I need to say. Education problem solved right there!
Obama's layout is similar to Clinton's but begins by listing the five problems with American education as he sees them. They are NCLB's lack of funding, America's low scores in reading and math, the high dropout rate, teacher retention and soaring college costs. To alleviate these problems, Obama wants to expand Head Start, help states move to voluntary, universal pre-school; fund NCLB; make math and science a national priority (while not mentioning history or English); and create and fund various other programs geared specifically toward poor and minority students.
All three candidates fail to address properly the problems in American education. McCain is on the right track by emphasizing competition and choice but he lacks specific proposals. Clinton and Obama both want public education at an earlier age, which is unlikely to solve our problems, and to throw more money at a broken system instead of doing the really difficult task of repairing the system and cleaning out those who want no change, no choice, no competition.
What these candidates should offer is a return to local control, an emphasis upon improved and more rigorous curricula, school choice and competition, and a significant reduction in the power of teachers' unions. These would begin the process of improvement that we desperately need and make education more flexible and responsive to peoples needs. And that is real change we could believe in.