They're like the kid in the back of the classroom with his hand raised, whom the teacher never gets to call on because the other students are shouting for attention. Education activists thought that the 2008 presidential campaign would be their opportunity to make progress on the multitude of troubles besieging the nation's schools: low test scores, high dropout rates, teen violence, skyrocketing college costs. Then along came the tumbling economy, climbing gas prices, continued problems in Iraq, and the Rev. Jeremiah Wright.
"Education is a big issue, but I don't hear much about it, because everyone is going after the 'gotcha' of the day," says former Secretary of State Colin Powell, founder of America's Promise, which is working to draw attention to high school dropout rates. The organization recently released a study that found that the graduation rate in 17 of the nation's largest cities is less than 50 percent, a discouraging statistic in the face of increased global competition. "We need to be educating our youngsters to compete with China, India, eastern Europe, Russia, and Latin America," Powell says.
How each of the presidential candidates would attempt to improve the American school system is difficult to ascertain, given the limited dialogue on education thus far on the campaign trail. Still, there is little question that the next president will play a major role in the future of such pivotal education policies as the No Child Left Behind Act and the push for college affordability. Education experts who have examined the candidates' platforms have been able to reach a few conclusions. Presumptive Republican nominee Sen. John McCain, who has been particularly reticent on the topic, most likely would support traditional Republican policies such as school vouchers, merit pay for teachers, and the No Child Left Behind law. While there are notable policy differences in how Sen. Hillary Clinton and Sen. Barack Obama would pursue their goals for American education, experts say the two Democratic candidates have largely similar ideas about which reforms the nation's schools ought to pursue.
Losing step. Frustration over how education has been crowded out of the presidential debate is barely contained among the nation's leading education experts. Each week seems to bring more evidence of how the United States is losing step with the rest of the developed world when it comes to educating children. Seventy percent of eighth graders are not proficient in reading, over a million high schoolers drop out each year, and nearly one third of college freshmen must take remedial math or English courses.
Recent polls suggest that the electorate would like to hear more about education—especially women, Hispanics, and young voters. Ultimately, the economy could be the catalyst that thrusts education into the campaign dialogue, experts say. After all, tomorrow's CEOs, scientists, and inventors are sitting in America's classrooms today. There already is evidence that the need for improvement is urgent: Two thirds of all new U.S. jobs require advanced training, and many U.S. companies insist they can't find enough skilled employees to fill openings without hiring foreign workers. For example, while there are nearly 100,000 new jobs annually in computer science, there has been a dramatic decline in tech graduates. As a result, the United States provides 65,000 temporary work visas each year to help make up the shortfall.
The connection between schooling and the economy is a theme echoed throughout the circles of those who seek to make education a bigger part of the campaign. "We face a future in which good jobs may not be ours if we don't fare better in educating our children," says former Colorado Gov. Roy Romer, chairman of Strong American Schools, a nonprofit funded in part by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. He is charged with the tough task of encouraging the presidential contenders to elevate education in their campaign agendas. Adds Romer: "We're not where a great nation ought to be."
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.
But no matter which Democratic candidate prevails—and which candidate moves into the White House—the war and economy are not likely to recede from the forefront of the national campaign debate anytime soon. The next president's challenge will be spotting that hand at the back of the class.