10/27/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Candidates Agree On Education Goals, Differ On Path To Get There

Each of the last three residents of the White House vowed to be known as the "education president." Today, after twenty years of broken promises, we seem to be left with little more than a debate over whether public schools are worth saving. Given the economy's flirtation with disaster, it's unlikely either presidential candidate will win votes with the slogan, "It's the education system, stupid."

The candidates agree that education in America is in dire need of improvement. They also agree on the basics for reform: early childhood education is vital, parents play a central role, the No Child Left Behind Act hasn't lived up to its promises, more accountability for results is needed, and more must be done to attract and retain good teachers.

John McCain thinks all of those goals can be met by re-allocating current federal funds and encouraging states to pick up more of the costs of reforming education. Obama says his comprehensive plan will cost $18 billion in federal funds when it is completely phased in. To pay for it, according to his campaign web site, he would delay a NASA project for five years, auction surplus federal property, close tax loopholes for executives, and use some of the savings associated with winding down the war in Iraq, among other sources.

Here's how the candidates compare on the major issues:

No Child Left Behind and School Reform

According to John McCain NCLB has been primarily a wake-up call that public schools are failing. According to his campaign website, "While NCLB has been invaluable in providing a clear picture of which schools and students are struggling, it is only the beginning of education reform." McCain believes the program is adequately funded as it is and that "all federal financial support" should provide parents "the ability to move their children, and the dollars associated with them, from failing schools" to "schools of demonstrated excellence, including their own homes." Assessment shouldn't be on "group averages" but on encouraging every child to reach their potential.

Obama believes NCLB had the right goal, but has failed to make a difference because the program has been underfunded, poorly designed and inadequately implemented by the Department of Education. His catch phrase is "No Child Left Behind left the money behind." He says the law can be fixed by improving the assessments to track student progress "in a timely, individualized manner." He says, "Teachers should not be forced to spend the academic year preparing students to fill in bubbles on standardized tests." He also vows to improve NCLB's accountability system by supporting schools that need improvement, rather than punishing them. Obama supports charter schools to give parents choices and to encourage innovation in public schools. Unlike McCain, Obama doesn't believe parents should be able to use vouchers for public school money to be used for private schools.

Early Childhood Education

McCain recognizes that early childhood education can make the difference in whether a student succeeds in school. In an interview with the online magazine,, McCain's domestic policy advisor, Doug Holtz-Eakin, explained, "Research has shown that the best return on investment of our education dollar is in early childhood development." According to McCain, these don't have to be new federal dollars. His plan claims there's no shortage of federal programs for early child care and preschool, pointing to the $25 billion a year spent on them by state and federal governments. McCain calls for leveraging and coordinating these programs. He points to estimates that 70-85 percent of children from low-income families already have access to early care and/or preschool. Whoever still needs access, he says, can be covered simply by streamlining programs that are already there and reallocating funds accordingly.

McCain would create a program for Centers for Excellence in Head Start that would provide grants of at least $200,000 per year to exemplary pre-K and early learning programs nominated by state governors. The grants would be funded through the Department of Health and Human Services, depending on availability of funding.

Obama's early learning plan, titled "Zero to Five," will provide early care and education for infants to prepare children for kindergarten. He'll create Early Learning Challenge Grants to promote state "zero to five" efforts and help states move toward voluntary, universal pre-school. He will quadruple Early Head Start, increase Head Start funding and improve the quality of both. His plan would also provide affordable and high-quality child care to ease the burden on working families.

Attracting and retaining better teachers

McCain strongly supports merit pay for teachers. Salary incentives would be provided for those who teach in the most challenging educational settings and to those whose students show demonstrated improvement. Merit pay decisions would be made by principals.

McCain also believes in de-regulating teacher credentialing. "You could be a Nobel Laureate and not qualify to teach in most public schools today," he said in his speech to the NAACP, scoffing that, "They don't have the proper credits in educational 'theory' or 'methodology.' McCain will devote five percent of Title II funding to states to recruit teachers who graduate in the top 25 percent of their class.

Obama points out that 30 percent of new teachers leave the profession within five years. His plan for ensuring effective teachers and school leaders, which includes a career ladder, is his version of merit pay. Teachers would be rewarded for mentoring first year teachers, curriculum development, professional development and exceptional classroom teaching.

Parental involvement

McCain wants to empower parents to move their children from failing schools. He would ensure that pre-school programs teach parents to prepare their children for school readiness. He would encourage parents to read to their children.

Obama would provide a parent report card to support individual learning plans for achieving grade level mastery and readiness for high school graduation and post-high school education. In support of these plans schools will be encouraged to develop school-family contracts that outline expectations for attendance, behavior and homework. It will include information about tutoring services and public school choice options for parents. States would be required to provide their plans for individual learning plans to the Department of Education together with their annual accountability plans.

More accountability

McCain calls for meaningful and measurable standards for all pre-school programs, including Headstart. He would continue the kind of testing being used for NCLB.

Obama wants to broaden the way student learning is assessed, to test "inquiry and higher order thinking skills including inference, logic, data analysis and interpretation, forming questions, and communication," rather than just facts. Obama would require annual reports to the public and Congress at least once a year of the results of performance-based federal education programs, using student achievement, college and high school graduation rates and school report cards, to evaluate discretionary federal education spending programs.

What it all means

John McCain devotes about 3,000 words on his web site to his plan for reforming education. Obama's plan takes up nearly 9,000 words. That's because Obama goes into great detail about how to improve schools. McCain's message is much simpler. Public schools should be just one option of many, including home schooling. Competition in a free market will result in better results. That argument doesn't sound quite so convincing as our free market economy verges on collapse.

This week OffTheBus is publishing a variety of stories that cover the policy differences between Senators John McCain and Barack Obama. If you have a policy expertise and would like to participate, please see Calling All Policy Gurus.