Presidential Candidates Have Little Opportunity to Talk About Education

How each candidate would attempt to improve the American school system is difficult to ascertain.

The next president will face pressure on college prices.

The next president will face pressure on college prices.

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In contrast, some conservative groups of education reformers are not bothered by the fact that the topic of education has been sidelined during this campaign season. "It's not the worst thing in the world. We have a history of creating unintended consequences, as with No Child Left Behind," says Mike Petrilli, vice president for national programs and policy at the Fordham Institute. "So I don't mind if the federal government takes a breather."

More lenient. McCain, who is better known for his views on defense and federal spending than on education, appears to agree. Unlike the two Democratic contenders, McCain doesn't yet have a detailed education platform, though his campaign says it's forthcoming. "No one has ever suggested that education is an issue McCain has focused upon," says Frederick Hess, director of education policy studies at the conservative American Enterprise Institute. "He doesn't need to. He's comfortable with mainstream Republican thought and is unapologetically talking about school choice." McCain also supports merit pay, vouchers, charter schools, and No Child Left Behind—with changes to the law's testing requirements to make it more lenient for schools that enroll high percentages of English-language learners and students with disabilities.

Indeed, while all of the candidates agree that the goals of NCLB are laudable, each has staked out a different position on the legislation. President Bush's ambitious effort to overhaul public schools mandates that all students become proficient in reading and math by 2014. The law requires schools to regularly test students in these subjects, and it establishes penalties for schools that fail to make adequate progress, including closing schools that persistently fail to meet the requirements. Obama would work to improve the testing and support schools that needed help—rather than punishing them. Clinton has vowed to end NCLB and replace it with broader assessments that focus on individual students' academic growth.

But aside from policy details, many experts argue there's not much difference between the education positions of Clinton and Obama. "Nothing really distinguishes the Democrats from each other," says Reginald Weaver, president of the National Education Association. (The NEA is the nation's largest union and has not endorsed any candidate.) For instance, both Democrats agree on the importance of early childhood education and call for greatly expanding the Early Head Start federal program. But while Clinton favors universal pre-kindergarten for all 4-year-olds, Obama wants to first put funds into helping economically disadvantaged children from birth to 5 years old.

The Democratic candidates' positions on higher education also are similar, focusing on affordability. Both have referenced the high price of earning a degree during their campaign discussions of the nation's economic troubles. The cost of attending college continues to outpace the availability of financial aid: While the federal Pell grant maximum has been raised by $681 in the past two years, the average cost of a year at a public university has jumped more than $1,000. "College is so far out of reach for low-income kids," says Amy Wilkins, vice president for Education Trust, an independent nonprofit. "We're in a world of trouble with this growing class of people with no opportunity to go to school." Obama plans to address the problem by establishing a refundable tax credit of $4,000 to go toward tuition each year. Clinton would increase the maximum Pell grant and create a $3,500 tax credit for tuition costs.

Teacher benefits. Possibly the most dramatic difference between the Democratic candidates involves teacher salaries. Both are wary of merit pay, but they support extra pay for instructors who take on additional responsibilities, including mentoring, or those who teach in disadvantaged urban schools or high-need subjects such as math and science. Where they break, however, is that Clinton supports schoolwide performance-based pay, while Obama would reward individual teachers. Education experts, both progressives and conservatives, say Obama's position could constitute a significant break with the teachers unions and Democratic orthodoxy and signals the possibility that he could institute reforms just as far-reaching as NCLB.