McCain and Obama's Education Policies: Nine Things You need to Know

While you're more apt to see this year's presidential candidates verbally jousting on the economy, Iraq, and the war on terror, less sexy, non headline-grabbing issues like national education policy could ultimately have as profound a long-run impact on our country. After eight years, the report card on No Child Left Behind is filled with C's and D's. Math scores are up nationwide, but the high school dropout rate isn't coming down, and too many schools are focused on passing fill-in-the-bubble tests instead of real learning.

For those who don't follow the education debate closely, there are two main philosophies that currently dominate the field: one is that market competition (choice) among schools gets kids learning more, and one is that more learning means investing more and earlier in kids and better teachers. Each candidate has aligned himself with one of those camps.

With that as a backdrop, I'll give you the quick rundown on where both candidates stand and what their key policies are, with some brief analysis of their positions. While education policy may not be the key deciding point for most voters, at least you'll know what the candidates propose on this important issue.

1. McCain and Milton (Friedman)
McCain is a school choice man, and he takes his message directly from the new Republican orthodoxy's playbook. That playbook is drawn from Milton Friedman's 1955 proposals for school vouchers. Friedman claimed that government funding (through vouchers) for families who wanted to send their children to private school would generate two big payoffs: lower-priced education through competition and greater parent satisfaction through choice. The McCain platform goes a step beyond Friedman: it lumps charter schools in with private school vouchers as part of the market solution to improving education. But Friedman's case was mostly ideological -- he had no direct evidence that educational markets worked better than a public school system, or that privately run schools could deliver a better product for the same or lower price as public schools.

2. It doesn't work but its cheap

The upside for McCain's position is that Americans generally like the idea of school choice. They lump notions like choice and competition into the same category as apple pie and motherhood. Another advantage is that it's cheap. The downside is that, despite what Milton Freidman may have believed, school choice does not make for better schooling. Careful research evaluating voucher plans and charter school education shows that vouchers and charters do not raise average student test scores, not even in inner cites where better schooling alternatives should make a big difference. Competition among schools doesn't work either: studies show that the presence of charter and voucher schools in neighborhoods doesn't improve the performance of students in "competing" traditional public schools.

3. Obama's "better resources" strategy
Obama's approach to improving education is the polar opposite of McCain's. McCain assumes that public school efficiency is the problem and more choice will solve it. But Obama reasons that you can't build a Lexus from Yugo parts. His platform focuses on making better educational resources available to kids before and during their school years. That includes investing more in childcare and preschool, raising the quality of teachers, and investing in out-of-school activities to reduce dropouts.

4. Charter light
Obama likes charter schools, but in a different way from McCain. For good reason, he rejects McCain's premise that charter school choice can "solve" American students' achievement problem. Instead, Obama sees space in the public system for "good" charter schools that innovate or attract creative social entrepreneurs into education, and he wants to regulate mismanaged charter schools out of existence, like happens in his home state of Illinois.

5. Is it worth the price?
The political downside to Obama's plan is that it means spending more now, but the payoffs are 15-20 years down the road. Another disadvantage is that some Americans don't believe spending more on schools actually makes them better. The upside of Obama's plan is that the data are beginning to show more spending works, especially when it goes into pre-schools and incentives to attract better-prepared young people into teaching. A major Rand Corporation study shows that investing early (as early as pre-natal) in poor kids has a large payoff -- about four dollars for every dollar invested. Other good research shows that having a teacher who knows more math or science or English and how to teach it effectively helps students do better in those subjects.

6. A tale of three cities: Milwaukee, Washington, D.C., and New York
Thanks to a Wisconsin Supreme Court decision in 1998, Milwaukee's experimental voucher program expanded to private religious schools. By 2007, 15 thousand voucher students attended more than 100 private schools. Milwaukee also has full public school choice, including charter and magnet schools. The bottom line is that with all this choice and competition, Milwaukee's test scores have not increased since 1999-2000, after a modest rise followed the initial announcement of the voucher program expansion.
Similarly, In Washington, D.C., charter schools and vouchers were supposed to raise dismal student performance in a school district many considered the most inefficient in the country. About a third of DC students shifted to non-traditional, publicly funded charter and voucher schools. Yet, after more than five years of choice, students in charter and voucher schools do no better than students in public schools, and students in public schools are doing no better because of competition from charter and voucher schools.

In contrast, New York City went for the teacher improvement strategy. The City raised starting teachers' salaries and promoted teaching fellowships and the Teach for America program to bring more high achieving college graduates into City schools. Expanding the pool of good teachers has raised the quality of teaching for low-performing students, and this seems to have had a major impact on overall test scores, especially increasing learning gains at the bottom of the achievement distribution.

7. Numbers don't lie
If choice is supposed to be the answer to improving schooling for underserved children, McCain needs to show why it has not worked for students in two major cities with showcase programs. The New York results support Obama's case that attracting increasing numbers of talented young people into teaching will improve student achievement. Combined with other data showing large gains from spending more on kids before they ever get to school, Obama's investment strategy looks like a much better bet than school choice.

8. Economic policy also impacts school achievement
Kids' economic and social situations have a major impact on their success in school. Differences between McCain and Obama's tax policies may be as important in influencing educational outcomes as differences in education strategies. Whether we get McCain's plan of continuing to use government tax policy to favor the wealthy versus Obama's to shift public resources to the middle-class, the working poor, and the socially disadvantaged would affect millions of children's economic conditions at home, thus their school performance. Data show that when a country's income distribution is more equal, average school achievement is higher.

9. The real school choice
You've probably figured out by know that you have a real choice in November between two very different education proposals. One would mainly shift some public school kids into similarly performing private and charter schools. For all but these few, not much else would change. The other proposal could bring lots of kids into childcare and pre-schools, recruit more math majors into teaching, and might make a big difference in the lives of the next generation. It could start kids in quality programs early and keep many more from dropping out and out of prison. Not as hot an issue as Iraq or gas prices, but maybe much more important for defining who we are twenty years from now.