After Wednesday night’s presidential debate, I found myself arguing with a friend about the candidates’ education policy.
McCain was mostly right, I insisted, that vouchers can be a useful tool for parents in widening school choice, while my friend countered that McCain only wanted to sap money from public schools and create an inequitable hierarchy of schools. In the course of the argument, I realized we had fallen into the trap that partisans have set for years. This is why Americans have reached a stalemate in education policy. And while we all argue, our school system is only worsening. In the debate, as in the campaign, Barack Obama offered a coherent and thorough plan to fund and reform schools, while John McCain instead relied on the same partisan gimmickry that has plagued public school policy for decades.
McCain’s focus on school vouchers is not an education reform plan; it’s a gimmick. School districts across America face profound systemic challenges that need serious solutions. Teacher shortages and high attrition rates cripple the profession; districts cannot afford early childhood education, creating an achievement gap even before kindergarten; students leaving high school cannot afford to go to college, dooming their chances at entering the white-collar workforce. Whether we should approve a few thousand vouchers in Washington, D.C., is a complete distraction from these issues.
McCain briefly mentioned several smart ideas — support for charter schools, reforming the well-intentioned No Child Left Behind law and improving special-needs education — but he offered nothing resembling concrete proposals to reach those ends. In fact, he argued several times earlier in the debate for an “across-the-board spending freeze.” How, then, does McCain intend to find funds for these three initiatives? As Obama concluded, “The centerpiece of Sen. McCain’s education policy is to increase the voucher program in D.C. by 2,000 slots. That leaves all of you who live in the other 50 states without an education reform policy from Sen. McCain.”
Obama, on the other hand, has breached the divide between liberal and conservative school policy to offer pragmatic solutions. For decades, Democrats and Republicans have been unable to agree — and follow through — on an education package that combines the vital needs of our nation’s schools: high standards, reasonable accountability and real support for teachers and schools. Thursday night, Obama recognized that deadlock and pledged to move beyond it, saying, “Typically, what’s happened is that there’s been a debate between more money or reform, and I think we need both.” He has shown he is prepared to achieve both of these goals.
Starting with “more money,” the traditionally liberal solution to our education crisis, Obama proposed vastly increased funding for early childhood education and a $4,000 college-tuition tax credit for every student who is willing to give back in community service, military service or the Peace Corps. In addition, he would increase teacher salaries to make teaching a truly attractive profession, and also fund professional development initiatives such as teacher residency and mentoring programs.
But here’s where Obama’s more conservative, “reform” side kicks in. This funding all comes in exchange for “higher standards and accountability,” as Obama said last night. “If [teachers] can’t hack it, then we need to move on, because our kids have to have their best future.” Obama’s support for careful, school-based performance pay drew boos from the American Federation of Teachers conference this summer, as did his support for charter schools, which is critical in Washington, D.C., school reform, as in New Orleans. Unlike private schools paid with vouchers, charter schools are public and free, and careful oversight and improvement of charters will allow alternatives to traditional and sometimes outdated schools.
McCain has tried to paint Obama as naïve and liberal, but there is little of either trait in Obama’s education plans. Rather, they make up the essence of post-partisan progressivism — solutions that combine the best ideas from each party. The challenges we face in improving our country’s education system are profound, and they are challenges that Obama will meet and surpass. McCain, meanwhile, would have us arguing over vouchers in the Capitol, while children around the country are not getting the education they deserve, much as he has driven the presidential campaign toward Bill Ayers and ACORN, even as the middle class wages fall and jobs disappear.
We cannot afford these distractions in the campaign, and if similar gimmicks are allowed to dominate the White House’s education policy, America’s children will suffer.
Sam Brill is a junior in Trumbull College and co-president of the Yale chapter of the Roosevelt Institution, a student think tank.