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Education: Campaign produces few new ideas for improving schools

John McCain wants to improve American schools through choice and competition. Barack Obama says he'll end Republican "neglect and indifference" and fund effective school programs. Both candidates say they will "fix" the No Child Left Behind Act.

But Jonathan Plucker, director of the Center for Evaluation and Education Policy at the Indiana University School of Education, is disappointed with the lack of specific and innovative ideas about education coming from the candidtes -- and the general lack of discussion of education policy.

"A year ago, lots of groups thought education was going to be the first or second issue on the docket, after the war," he said.

Jonathan Plucker

Jonathan Plucker

Print-Quality Photo

While the recent financial turmoil has pushed the economy to the forefront, Plucker said the candidates haven't effectively pushed discussions about how to improve schools and broaden access to higher education.

McCain's Web site says, "Public education should be defined as one in which our public support for a child's education follows that child into the school the parent chooses." Plucker reads that as an endorsement of giving parents "vouchers" to pay for their children's education, at private or religious schools if they choose. He said experiments with vouchers have proven ineffective, and early supporters of such market-based reforms have moved away from them.

"It's something I would have expected a conservative candidate to put forth in the late '80s or early '90s," he said of McCain's school choice platform.

Obama calls for improving testing and accountability, vague goals that would require specifics to be meaningful. He also wants to increase federal funding, including doubling the investment in research and development.

"I would like to see that, but is it realistic given the current fiscal situation," Plucker said.

McCain says he will "build on the lessons of No Child Left Behind," the 2001 legislation that was the education hallmark of the Bush administration. He wants to empower parents and teachers and remove barriers to the teaching profession. In higher education, he calls for providing better information about colleges and simplifying financial aid forms and tax benefits.

Obama wants to recruit more math and science teachers, expand child care afterschool programs, and support school programs that help students get ready for college. He also wants to simplify college financial-aid procedures; and he proposes a $4,000 college tuition tax credit for students who perform 100 hours of community service.

Both candidates say they will expand preschool programs. "How you do it is, again, difficult," Plucker said, "but it's a big issue for independent moderates, many of whom have kids or grandkids in these programs."

McCain supports performance pay for teachers who volunteer to work in underperforming schools or improve students' test scores. More surprisingly, so does Obama, provided the pay systems are "developed with teachers, not imposed on them." For Obama, that represents a potential break with teachers' unions that typically back Democrats.

"Quite frankly, that's the kind of gutsy talk I'd like to hear from the other guy," Plucker said.

But Plucker said he had hoped to hear more detailed and original ideas about education; for example, promoting the potential for charter schools and public school choice to leverage innovations in how students are taught.

"The charter school experiment isn't an experiment any more. We've learned a lot," he said.

He also would like more talk about big education questions: for example, why is it that the U.S. has unequivocally the world's best graduate schools, world-class colleges and universities, and high-performing elementary schools, but its middle schools and high schools still struggle -- at least in under-resourced urban and rural areas.

"I'm disappointed," he said. "Until a year ago, I thought education was going to be talked about a ton."