Putting Education on the '08 Agenda

Remember the 2000 presidential campaign? If it seems like it happened in another lifetime, maybe another country, think how education wonks must feel. That was the year that American voters told pollsters that education was their number one concern in the presidential election. The Republican candidate, George W. Bush, broke with years of Republican platforms calling for the abolition of the Education Department to make education -- and an expansion of the federal role in it -- a centerpiece of his campaign, and virtually every photo op featured him surrounded by a crowd of smiling African American children. The Democratic candidate, Al Gore, used the luxury of a budget surplus to propose significant new federal investments in education, particularly universal preschool. Presidential debates featured heated exchanges over education.

Fast forward eight years, through September 11, the launching of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Hurricane Katrina, the return of giant federal deficits, the collapse of the technology and housing bubbles, and the 2000 campaign's emphasis on education seems almost quaint. Education didn't rate a passing mention in last week's Democratic debate. Hillary Clinton, John Edwards and John McCain don't even list education as a category in the "issues" sections of their Web sites. Even though Bill Gates and Los Angeles real estate mogul Eli Broad have invested millions in an aggressive media campaign to make education a major issue in the 2008 presidential election, only one percent of voters in a recent Washington Post-ABC News poll said education was their primary concern.

Yet, despite all the new issues that have emerged in the past eight years, the educational challenges the United States faced in 2000 haven't gone away: There's still an enormous achievement gap between poor and affluent students, our schools are more racially and economically segregated than ever, and barely half of African American and Hispanic students entering our high schools graduate within four years. Is there room for the 2008 presidential candidates to say smart things about improving public education in the United States? The education policy plan John Edwards recently put forward suggests there may yet be.

Edwards' plan focuses in three key areas:

  • Early Education: Edwards would provide federal funds to help states create or expand high-quality universal pre-kindergarten programs, starting in low-income areas with struggling schools. Pre-kindergarten would be free for low-income students with tuition on a sliding scale to make it affordable for working families. To support development for children under age four, Edwards would fund local "smart start" partnerships, modeled after a successful North Carolina initiative, to provide services -- including health, child care, and parenting programs -- for young children and their families.
  • Teacher Quality: Edwards' plan would provide bonus pay to encourage good teachers to work in high-poverty schools. It also includes $5,000 bonuses for National Board Certified teachers working in high-poverty schools, for veteran teachers who mentor rookie teachers, and for all teachers in high-poverty schools that have good academic performance and satisfied parents. The plan would support first-year teachers by offering them mentorship and reduced responsibilities, and would create a National Teacher University, modeled after the military's Service Academies, to prepare 1,000 teachers annually to work in high-need schools and serve as a model for other teacher preparation programs nationally.
  • Low-Performing Schools: Edwards' plan would create a School Success Fund to turn around failing schools by focusing resources on the neediest schools and sending in turnaround teams of experts to help them improve. It would also create, over four years, 1,000 new high-performing schools, including small schools, charter schools, and magnet schools that foster socioeconomic integration. This plan builds directly on policies Edwards proposed earlier this year to increase the number of schools serving children from diverse economic backgrounds.

By and large, these are smart ideas with potential to appeal to both education reformers and the elements of the Democratic base that are skeptical of education reform. There's a strong base of research on both the effectiveness of high-quality pre-kindergarten and the importance of teacher quality. Unfortunately, there's an equally strong body of evidence showing that low-income kids systematically get less access to high-quality preschool and qualified teachers than do their more affluent peers. Edwards is exactly right to make these disparities a top priority. Similarly, Edwards' proposals to turn around low-performing schools address a glaring shortcoming in NCLB, which has done a much better job of identifying low-performing schools than providing them with help to improve.

Two broader points are at least as noteworthy as the plan's policy specifics. First, there's a nice thematic coherence between these proposals, which focus on educational equity for low-income students, and Edwards' broader anti-poverty and pro-equity campaign themes. Second, Edwards has managed to combine a serious rhetorical assault on NCLB with policy proposals -- better tests, looking at student learning gains over time, help for struggling schools -- that are fairly consistent with the law's intent, and would improve, rather than eviscerate, its accountability.

That's significant for the debate in Washington right now over NCLB. House Education Committee Chairman George Miller (D-CA) has been pushing to reauthorize the legislation by the end of the year. The National Education Association, which is unhappy with a draft NCLB bill circulated by Miller's staff, has been urging Congress to "go slow" on NCLB, perhaps because NEA leaders think they'll get a better deal from a Democratic president in 2009. But hopes -- or, depending on one's perspective, fears -- that a Democratic president will dismantle NCLB's testing and accountability seem misplaced. Edwards and Chris Dodd, the only other presidential candidate to offer a comprehensive education plan, are proposing policies that would fix the most pressing problems in NCLB -- such as low-quality state standards and tests that fail to measure higher-order skills, encouraging teaching to the test -- while maintaining the law's core commitment to standards and accountability in public education. In fact, some of Edwards' and Dodd's proposals for NCLB are quite similar to provisions in Miller's draft legislation.

Reforming NCLB may be controversial, but universal pre-K is shaping up to be a big winner in 2008. Three Democratic candidates -- Hillary Clinton, Dodd, and Edwards -- have now put forward detailed proposals for universal pre-kindergarten, a policy Bill Richardson also supports. That reflects both the strong research supporting greater investment in high-quality pre-K and the growing momentum of the national pre-K movement. As the only leading Democratic candidate who has not articulated a clear position on early childhood education, Barack Obama may face pressure from that pre-K movement to either articulate his early education policy, or explain why he doesn't think universal pre-kindergarten is a good idea. Obama could also be asked for a concrete policy agenda to match his passionate rhetoric on education equity. In a July speech to the NEA, he promised to unveil an ambitious teacher quality plan in the coming months -- a promise that so far hasn't been met. Edwards' plan could remind journalists and education advocates of Obama's unmet promise.

The release of Edwards' plan is less likely to prompt education policy specifics from other leading candidates, however. As the Democratic frontrunner, Hillary Clinton has little incentive to engage on controversial K-12 education issues, and seems content to focus on her strong universal pre-K policy and proposals to improve college access. Richardson, who has penned op-eds denouncing NCLB, seems to be targeting an audience that doesn't need to know much more than that about his education views. And Republicans have been virtually silent on education, reflecting the deep divisions within their base over NCLB and the federal role in education generally.

Education isn't going to be the deciding issue in the 2008 election, and Edwards' proposals aren't going to change that. Nevertheless, Edwards and Dodd deserve credit for putting forward promising education agendas that don't simply pander to anti-NCLB sentiment but put forward real solutions. The leading Republican candidates' apparent discomfort on education offers an opening for Democrats to regain their dominance on an issue Bush almost won from them in 2000 -- but only if they can resist the urge to pander to anti-NCLB sentiment and instead offer smart alternative ideas to improve public education.

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