With foreign policy and the faltering economy dominating the news this election season, education hasn’t received as much discussion as it deserves. Chief among the reasons: Congress this year is arguing over whether to reauthorize No Child Left Behind, the sweeping 2001 law that linked federal funding of schools to annual standardized tests. Both candidates favor overhauling the law.
Fact is, every presidential candidate since George H.W. Bush has promised to be "the education president," and each has expanded the federal government’s role in public schools. How would Obama or McCain distinguish themselves as education presidents? Ben Boychuk and Joel Mathis, the RedBlueAmerica columnists, weigh in.
Barack Obama argues that there is no problem with America’s schools that more federal intervention can’t solve. But here’s a fact that Democrats may not be comfortable accepting: George W. Bush has done more to boost the federal role in education than any president since Lyndon Johnson. Federal spending on K-12 education increased from $27.3 billion in 2001 to nearly $72 billion last year.
But Obama is nothing if not ambitious. According to the campaign’s fact sheet on "Pre-K-12" education, Obama would "invest" $10 billion in "Zero to Five" education, expand Head Start and "Early Head Start," push universal pre-school at an unknown cost, expand the $5 billion Child Care Development Block Grant program by an undisclosed amount, and pour millions of additional dollars into dropout prevention and summer school programs.
Here’s another fact Democrats might not be comfortable with: The stagnation that has settled over American education since 1970 coincides with the massive growth in federal meddling that began with the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965.
Obama’s education prescriptions are akin to feeding poison to a dying man. The cure for poisoning is not more poison. The cure for failing schools is not more of the very meddling that hastened the failure in the first place. John McCain could distinguish himself as a true education president by reducing the federal role in America’s classrooms.
John McCain could distinguish himself as an education president — if he were interested in doing so. He’s not.
Take a look at his campaign website. Where Barack Obama offers a list of proposals and priorities in education, McCain speaks hazily of "reform." His only concrete suggestion: Let parents choose the schools their children attend. That’s not a bad idea, necessarily, but McCain’s overall vagueness on the issue suggests that education belongs to the vast realm of domestic issues about which he’s has little interest and few ideas. He’s interested in foreign policy — and while that’s important, a president must be able to walk and chew gum at the same time.
Conservatives and liberals have been furiously debating education reforms at least since 1983, when "A Nation at Risk" warned of failing American schools. Though George H.W. Bush famously declared he wanted to be the "education president," his son actually did something about it. "No Child Left Behind" is flawed and universally despised, but it has the right goal: Make schools accountable for their results.
Both Bushes, at least, were interested in the topic. John McCain is not. Barack Obama is. If education policy is your big issue at the polls in November, it’s important to know that only one candidate is actually paying attention.
(Ben Boychuk and Joel Mathis blog at blog.infinitemonkeysblog.com and joelmathis.blogspot.com.)