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Leaving Bush Behind

What will America’s classrooms look like under a McCain or Obama administration?

   In an election year marked by an unpopular war, soaring gas prices and YouTube parodies, the issue of education hasn’t exactly been at the forefront of national discussion. But education advocates and experts are paying close attention. They know that whoever enters the White House after President Bush, whether it’s Republican Sen. John McCain or Democratic Sen. Barack Obama, will likely have a serious effect on the future of American classrooms.
   Many people are anxious to see what will become of the controversial No Child Left Behind Act. The 2002 law required that all students be proficient in math and reading by 2014. The law also mandated that schools achieve certain performance goals or face sanctions. Critics of No Child Left Behind point to its “one size fits all” approach to education and impossible benchmarks.
   McCain’s plan praises No Child Left Behind for shedding light on student performance. Obama says he thinks the law, though created with the best of intentions, is flawed and inadequately funded. He wants to see No Child Left Behind reformed.
   The Illinois senator is not alone.
   “The top priority and responsibility of the new president is going to be to fix the No Child Left Behind Act,” says Julie Woestehoff, executive director of Parents United for Responsible Education, a Chicago-based public school parent advocacy group. “The new president needs to declare No Child Left Behind a disaster and metaphorically send in the troops.”
   Obama’s education plan boasts a 15-page detailed proposal for learning from pre-kindergarten to the 12th grade. In addition to revamping No Child Left behind, he intends to improve access to early childhood education programs, reduce the dropout rate and encourage more parental involvement.
   “There is widespread recognition that continuing down our present path is not only morally wrong, it is a threat to our country’s competitiveness,” Obama spokesman Dan Leistikow writes via e-mail. “There is also a shared belief that fixing No Child Left Behind is not in and of itself an education policy—that we have to do more to truly fix our schools and provide a high-quality education to all of our children.”
   Obama’s plan also offers ideas for higher education that would make college more affordable by providing $4,000 tax credits for students. He also wants to simplify the financial aid process.
   Less than a page long, McCain’s plan for education, expected to be complete by fall, touts school choice and competition. Should a school not improve, the plan calls for students to have the option to change schools. The McCain campaign could not be reached for comment.
    “[McCain] seems to be focusing on school choice as some kind of magic bullet strategy,” says Ben Superfine, an assistant professor of policy studies in the College of Education at the University of Illinois Chicago. “This is a politically charged issue in education circles. On one side, you get the folks who have a fear of privatization, and free market because they think choice is going to lead to privatization and on the other side, you get that idea that the education system is unresponsive.”
   Research has shown that charter schools are no better or worse than public schools, says Superfine, who describes McCain’s plan “too narrow.”
   “McCain also unfortunately is not focusing on boosting the capacity of schools,” Superfine says. “He’s not that concerned with providing extra support to schools to meet their goals.”
   Obama, on the other hand, has several ideas that look positive, Superfine says. He cites Obama’s early childhood education proposal as one example. Through his “Zero to Five” plan, Obama wants to better prepare children to enter kindergarten and help states achieve universal pre-school. He also plans to expand Head Start programs and provide quality, affordable childcare to assist working families.
   Superfine also finds Obama’s strategy for retaining and recruiting teachers encouraging. Under an Obama administration, teachers would be rewarded through scholarships for working in high-need fields or locations.
   Such a concept is particularly appealing to Chicago Public Schools chief Arne Duncan. He views the recruitment of valuable teaching staff as a major step in improving public education.
   “This teacher scholarship idea is a huge one,” Duncan says. “If you want to recruit this great talent, you have to invest.”
   Although Superfine sees significant potential in Obama’s education plan, the candidate’s ambitious agenda might be spread too thin, he says. There’s a chance that his policies wouldn’t all work together, Superfine says.
   “Obama’s plan looks a lot more promising [than McCain’s],” Superfine says. “But implementing his plan is going to be difficult to do.”
   Obama is aware that his education plan features some tall orders, Leistikow says.
   “This work will be challenging,” Leistikow says. “But Senator Obama is confident that we can bring together parents and teachers, educators and legislators, governors and superintendents to provide the resources and reforms we need to improve pre-K to 12 education.”
   For Woestehoff, a mother of two whose now grown sons attended Chicago Public Schools, the key is local control of public education. Parents need to be involved and schools must be fixed where they are, not abandoned for better ones, she says.
   “Parents aren’t after a choice of schools,” Woestehoff said. “Parents want a good school across the street or down the street. That’s the American dream. The American dream is not having to go shopping for a school. Families are having that dream taken away from them under No Child Left Behind.”

Published: August 09, 2008
Issue: Fall 2008 Politics Issue