Brill: No gimmicks for schools

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.


  • Education Choice

    Public schooling is simply a monopoly that doesn’t fulfill the ideals of our founding fathers. The tragic irony is that the dream envisioned by the founders of our public education system is actually increasing the stratification of society and failing to provide equal educational opportunity.

    It would be much better and more equitable if the government would “give each child, through his parents, a specified sum [voucher] to be used solely in paying for his general education.”

    The benefits of this idea, which has come to be known as school choice, are numerous. Studies show that school choice leads to better test scores for all students and higher graduation rates. They show that parents are more satisfied and involved with their child’s school, and that school choice saves taxpayers millions of dollars. And they show that public schools respond positively to competition.

    But beyond the theory, what lies at the heart of school choice is a family’s freedom to choose. It is about the child in the back of the classroom who is not getting what he needs in his assigned public school. It is about the student who just doesn’t feel comfortable at her current school. It is about the family that simply wants a different option.

    In the end, the goal of education is to ensure learning and guarantee a free society and stable democracy. These goals are better met when all parents are free to choose the school that works best for their child.

    So, why school choice? In a word, liberty.

  • Umm

    Mr. Brill,
    Just because Sen. McCain didn't give a 10-minute lecture about his education plans in the middle of an intense debate doesn't mean he is without such proposals. Do some research:

  • Sam Brill

    As I wrote in the column, McCain does propose a few federal funding initiatives that are worthy, but he has yet to explain how he plans to pay for them, given his "across-the-board spending freeze."

    Also, I think what a candidate chooses to stress during a debate matters a great deal. While Obama explained why education policy is critical to our long-term ability to remain globally competitive, and then offered a comprehensive solution to the profound challenges we face, McCain focused almost entirely on the gimmick of vouchers. I'm not looking for a 10-minute lecture; I'm looking for any reason I should think McCain would improve America's education system.

  • Yo #1
  • Anonymous

    George Patsourakos
    I believe that both charter schools and vouchers for private schools are important for American education, because they encourage accountability by educators in the public schools. For example, if students in charter schools and private schools perform much better than students in public schools on standardized tests -- such as the SAT -- we know that the public school students in that school district are not performing as well as they should be. We then need to determine where the shortcomings are in these public schools (eg, ineffective teaching, outdated curriculum, etc.) and take action to rectify these deficiencies. Another change we need to make in the public schools is to pay teachers with a merit pay system. Under the present policy, most communities pay all teachers equally; consequently, there is no incentive for teachers to be creative or to work harder to enhance the learning process. Under the merit pay system -- which unfortunately is opposed by most teachers' unions -- teachers whose students learn more and perform better on standardized tests would be rewarded with higher salaries. The bottom line: American public schools have been stagnant and mediocre for several decades; they will continue to be in a rut, until accountability for educational excellence is implemented!

  • @Yo #1

    Your link proved nothing, except:

    The more government meddles in education, the worse our public schools get.

    If it was up to ME, I would eliminate the Department of Education and transfer all public schools to private foundations to oversee.

    "But what about poor kids!!!!" you will breathlessly exclaim.

    Catholic schools and various non-profits do a far better job in the ghetto than any amount of publicly funded schools.