Presidential Candidates Offer Differing Plans: More Money vs. Targeted Spending

Published November 1, 2008

There are some essential differences between presidential candidates Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL) and Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) on education policy.

Obama, who advocates charter schools as the only true alternative for flawed public schools, flees from the voucher alternative that has succeeded in Cleveland, Milwaukee, Washington, DC, and other cities nationwide. McCain, by contrast, accepts school choice as the way to inject real competition into the education equation.

Teachers or Parents?

What else do McCain and Obama offer as “change agents” for American education policy in the post-Bush era?

On early childhood education, Obama would like to spend new billions on a “children first” agenda to provide “care, learning, and support” to families with children from birth through age five. McCain believes there is already enough federal funding to leverage universal early childhood education by focusing existing early child care and preschool resources on the neediest children.

Change: Obama advocates expanded federal government spending, while McCain calls for means-tested targeting of existing funds with no increase.

Obama considers teachers key to the education process. He stated in a campaign appearance before a teacher union earlier this year, “new evidence shows that from the moment our children step into a classroom, the single most important factor in determining their achievement is not the color of their skin or where they come from, it’s not who their parents are or how much money they have. It’s who their teacher is. It’s you.”

McCain, by contrast, wants to “place parents and children at the center of the education process, empowering parents by greatly expanding parental school choice and mobility for students electing to move out of failing public schools.”

Payment Plans

Obama would raise teacher salaries across the board and recruit teachers from other professions. He would pay bonuses to “fully trained and tenured” instructors who “mentor” newer teachers in need of further training.

Obama says he would institute merit pay, as long as the teachers and not the principals or school administrators control who merits an increase. Bonuses would be available for teachers willing to serve in more challenging (poor, urban) school districts.

McCain would likewise reward inner-city teachers with merit pay, but he wants it distributed and evaluated by the principals who supervise and evaluate teachers, for greater accountability. Instead of new teacher-training programs and payoffs of student loans, McCain offers “alternative teacher certification” to “open the door for highly motivated teachers to enter the field” from other professions.

McCain would devote 5 percent of federal Title II funding to pay bonuses to recruit college students who graduate in the top 25 percent of their college class—not education colleges, but universities—to become public school teachers. He would redirect 60 percent of Title II funding to provide incentives for high-performing teachers taking inner-city assignments or those who teach math and science, and performance bonuses for those who demonstrate student improvement.

Change: Obama favors more spending, with merit pay under union control. McCain favors redirecting existing spending, with principals managing merit pay, and alternative teacher certification.

Teachers’ Pay

Obama bases his spending and teacher reward incentive programs on the premise that current public school teacher salaries “are morally unacceptable.” Yet as Manhattan Institute Senior Fellow Jay P. Greene has pointed out, “public school teachers in America, on average, are paid 36 percent more per hour than the average white-collar worker and 11 percent more than the average professional specialty or technical worker.”

In Obama’s home state of Illinois during the 2002-03 school year, the average salary for K-12 public school teachers was $51,496 per year, The Heritage Foundation has documented.

McCain’s approach is to direct more money to the best teachers, which over time will lead to lower relative salaries for inferior teachers and incentives to perform better on the job.

NCLB Reauthorization

According to a September 9 article in The New York Times, both candidates acknowledge No Child Left Behind (NCLB) has resulted in improved performance of poor and minority children. Obama offers to “fully fund” NCLB.

That means Obama agrees with teachers unions and various state government officials who say that when the federal government began requiring hard proof of student achievement, teachers and school districts should have received additional compensation to cover the costs of “teaching to the test” and “administering and grading” exams. Obama would address this “unfunded mandate” by ramping up the NCLB budget.

McCain, by contrast, would concentrate on enabling parents to access “taxpayer-funded after-school tutoring by private companies.” NCLB already provides for such tutoring, but McCain believes the public school system has done an abysmal job orchestrating such efforts. Public schools impose cumbersome rules for local certification of private tutors and routinely fail to inform parents about the availability of tutoring services.

Neither candidate has directly addressed the NCLB requirement that “all students be proficient in reading and math by 2014.”

Ralph W. Conner ([email protected]) is local legislation manager at The Heartland Institute.