On Education Policy, Obama and McCain Clash Over Vouchers, Teaching 'Merits' and Funding

10/24/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

With Friday's first presidential debate just around the corner, it's time to examine some real policy differences before we get snookered by all the fast-talk. Following up on my post yesterday about sex-ed, let's look at both candidates' education policy, side by side.

McCain on Virtues:

McCain would pay schools to teach "virtues" in the classroom. In the 1999 GOP debate, McCain said he would provide tax breaks to schools (public, private, and charter) to teach about virtue.

Obama chooses Economic and Social Justice over nebulous virtue:

Obama is more concerned with acknowledging that we must "uphold the ideal of public education" but recognizing where it needs reform. He will spend those dollars not on faith-based or virtues education, but indicates that he will spend those virtues-monies on full-funding for Head Start so that the nation's children don't "begin the race of life behind the starting line".

McCain on Merit Pay:

With a strong record of support for cyber and charter schools, McCain heavily favors school vouchers, closing underperforming schools rather than rehabilitating them, and teacher competence testing over professional development. The AP reported, in June of 1999, that McCain believed teachers should be tested for competency and fired if they did not meet standards.

In keeping with his stance on deregulation (because it clearly worked so well for the greater economy of the US), McCain argued in the 2000 primary debate that "choice and competition is the key to success in education".

Obama on Merit Pay:

Obama has argued that merit-based pay for teachers is not an altogether horrible idea, breaking with his party in saying so. He makes the distinction, though, that much in the way that NCLB has not been a fair assessment of student achievement, standardized testing is no measure of teacher efficacy, either. Obama says he will push for a "buy-in" from teachers to measure student progress, to provide professional development for teachers, and to arrange apprenticeships for young teachers with more seasoned ones.

McCain on School Funding (Vouchers):

McCain heavily favors school choice, and vouchers to pay for school choice. According to Project VoteSmart ( ), McCain would allow parents to use vouchers to send their children to any participating school, whether public or private, charter, or faith-based. He would allow parents to use tax-free savings accounts to pay for tuition, and would push for greater funding for charter schools and the creation of more charter schools across America. To date, charter schools have showed slower success than their public-school counterparts, but he will continue to fund those and increase their numbers.

Obama on School Funding:

Senator Obama recognizes that education begins long before the charter-school day, and that homeschooling is not the panacea that Republicans seem to believe it is. Obama says that he will fight for full funding of Head Start programs, and his website notes that the Obama/Biden team will "quadruple Early Head Start, increase Head Start funding and improve quality for both."

Obama also indicates his support for education reform, not just walking away from failing schools. In "The Audacity of Hope," he wrote that we must identify high-impact reforms, fund those, and eliminate the programs which provide no results.

In another element of funding, in 1998 Obama supported state-funded tuition to all Illinois residents who maintained a B average or higher attending public colleges and universities. In keeping with that, he now supports a $4k college tuition tax credit so that college is no longer financially out of reach.

When we want more than just ideas and plans, the simplest way to gauge a candidate is to look at his or her past voting record. While McCain argues that Obama's record is thin, we can surely look to what the two candidates have chosen when asked to vote. Here is the next head-to-head:

$52 Million for 21st century afterschool programs, (taking the funds from a reduction in salaries in the Department of Labor)
McCain: NO
Obama: YES

$5 Billion for title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, which would provide $2.5B for targeting grants to local education agencies and $2.5 B for education finance incentive grants
McCain: NO
Obama: YES

Shift $11 Billion from corporate tax loopholes into education that would have restored funding (previously slashed) for vocational education, adult education, GEAR UP and TRIO. This legislation would have increased maximum Pell grants immediately to $4,500 and increased future math and science teacher loan forgiveness eligibility to $23k. All by closing tax loopholes for big corporations.
McCain: NO
Obama: YES

McCain also voted YES on $75 Million for abstinence-only education, NO on national Education standards, and voted NO on funding smaller class-sizes instead of private tutors. McCain also voted NO on using $448 Billion of the 2001 $1.6 Trillion tax cut to help fund education.

I'm moved to ask, then, if Obama's record on education is so thin, why is McCain's so stained?

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.