McCain, Obama Spokespersons Debate Federal Education Policy

Published September 1, 2008

As it has done in education generally over the past six years, the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) dominated the first debate between representatives of the two presumptive presidential party nominees, Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) and Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL).

On June 6, the Association of American Educational Publishers hosted a debate between Obama advisor Jeanne Century, a University of Chicago education researcher, and McCain advisor and former Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction Lisa Graham Keegan.

The debate–dubbed “The AEP Great American Education Forum”–was sponsored largely by ED in ’08, a campaign funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates and Eli and Edythe Broad foundations to make education a more prominent issue in the presidential race.

The debate was driven by questions from five panelists and was followed by questions from the audience.

Federal Role

The debaters opened by summarizing their candidates’ overall philosophies and plans for education, then briefly discussed reading curricula. Soon after, panelist Joel Packer, the National Education Association’s director of policy and practice, got to what would be the heart of the forum with a question about the appropriate federal role in education.

“This is going to be a pivotal issue for Senator McCain,” responded Keegan, who said her candidate believes Washington should ensure that states maintain standards and testing regimes and would like to see them voluntarily benchmark their standards against those of other nations.

Keegan added that “the senator is not in favor of national standards” and later said McCain sees the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act as an example of appropriate federal involvement because it defines students’ rights.

Century echoed Keegan’s sentiment, saying Obama also doesn’t want national standards. Instead, his plan is geared toward “lifelong learning,” and the proper federal government role is to get schools “the resources they need” and to “make sure all students are able to meet state standards.”

R&D Support

Century and Keegan agreed the federal government has a legitimate role in supporting research and development of best education practices.

Noting Obama includes investing in research and development as part of his education plan, Century said the federal government should fund a wide range of research and that we “need to find new ways to disseminate knowledge.”

Century criticized NCLB’s emphasis on random-assignment experiments, in which test subjects are selected randomly to ensure the group represents the overall population. Though scientists would consider a sample group of 12 students too small to be statistically significant, under the law it would be considered better than research with a broad sample using several analytical approaches.

Keegan said McCain believes research is “a very appropriate role for the federal government” and discussed improving state data systems.

NCLB Funding

Regarding funding for NCLB–critics have called the law underfunded almost from the moment of its passage–Keegan said she doesn’t think “there’s ever enough money” and noted the spending increases under the law have been unprecedented. The bigger problem, she said, is that too little education money actually ends up in classrooms.

While Obama agrees with the goals of NCLB, Century said, it has been “insufficiently funded and poorly implemented.”

School choice received relatively little attention during the debate. With time running out after the panelists concluded their questions, Packer asked if the candidates supported federal vouchers. Keegan quickly responded, saying McCain supports vouchers, though it was unclear whether he does so at the federal or only the state level. Century said Obama opposes them.

The debate was likely just the first of several to come, and Keegan noted McCain had not yet released his full education plan. He did so in mid-July, with proposals focusing on teacher quality, empowering principals, and expanding online education.

Neal McCluskey ([email protected]) is associate director of the Cato Institute’s Center for Educational Freedom.

For more information …

“John McCain’s plan for strengthening America’s schools,” July 16, 2008:

Barack Obama’s education plan: