Thursday, May 29, 2008

Obama v. McCain on NCLB

Candidates Split Sharply
On Bush's No Child Left Behind Law
Wall Street Journal
May 29, 2008; Page A6
Barack Obama attacked a key plank of John McCain's education platform, taking up an issue that has been on the back burner amid a campaign dialogue dominated by war and the economy.

The candidates' biggest disagreement on education policy comes over President Bush's No Child Left Behind law, which threatens sanctions if schools don't meet certain standards of achievement. Sen. Obama wants to overhaul the law, while Sen. McCain wants to extend it.

"We must fix the failures of No Child Left Behind," Sen. Obama said Wednesday while touring the Mapleton Expeditionary School of the Arts, a Colorado public school that leans heavily on the arts to teach subjects such as math and English. "We must provide the funding we were promised ... We also need to realize that we can meet high standards without forcing teachers and students to spend most of the year preparing for a single, high-stakes test," he added.

The Illinois senator cited Mapleton's unorthodox model of instruction as an example of creativity fostering success. He noted a study that asserted: "87% of Colorado teachers said that testing was crowding out subjects like music and art."

The general election will offer stark differences on education. The Democratic presidential front-runner supports federal funding toward universal prekindergarten in states. Sen. McCain is opposed. Sen. Obama wants to cut banks out of the student-loan business and would have students only borrow directly from the government. Sen. McCain says students benefit from competition between bank-based and "direct" government lending.

In a speech in November, Sen. Obama declared that the No Child Left Behind law "has done more to stigmatize and demoralize our students and teachers in struggling schools than it has to marshal the talent and the determination and the resources to turn them around."

In discussing No Child Left Behind on his Web site, Sen. McCain says that "we finally see what is happening to students who were previously invisible."

Signed into law six years ago, No Child Left Behind is considered one of President Bush's signature domestic achievements. The goal was to close the gap between high- and low-achieving children by holding their schools accountable. But while it passed with bipartisan support, the law has been widely panned for its rigidity by parents, teachers and education policymakers -- particularly among the heavily Democratic teachers unions.

Sen. Obama, as well as his rival for the Democratic nomination, Hillary Clinton, has proposed a revamping of the law.

Clinton aides say she wants to see testing models that distinguish between failing schools and schools that are just falling short. The New York senator's campaign says she wants to move beyond testing to other indicators of progress.

Sen. Obama, too, wants to take a fresh look at the testing models. The campaign says the law unfairly puts the responsibility for student performance heavily on schools. Sen. Obama wants to see parents -- not just schools -- held accountable, by requiring districts to adopt school-family contracts that lay out expectations for student behavior, attendance and homework, the campaign says.

The Bush law holds schools accountable by exacting punishments if students don't meet goals. Schools that fail to reach their yearly improvement targets face sanctions such as reduced managerial authority or even layoffs for teachers.

Sen. McCain says the No Child law has succeeded by shining a spotlight on how effectively schools are teaching. His campaign says the threat of tough sanctions gives schools a big incentive to improve.

There is also a clear partisan split on another hot education issue: whether preschool should be more widely available. Currently, most states provide only limited funding for pre-K.

But in recent years, a number of states have invested more from their budgets to expand pre-K availability, at least for lower-income families. Sens. Clinton and Obama both propose helping states establish or expand pre-K programs further. Sen. Obama proposes a "Zero to Five" plan, at a cost of $10 billion a year, providing incentives to states to expand early education for young children.

Sen. McCain says that a federally sponsored pre-K program already exists, which provides preschool services to low-income families. "Let's not look to expand the role of the federal government in this area," says a campaign aide, explaining the senator's position. "Rather, let's look to ensure where the government is playing a role, it's doing so effectively."
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