Obama vs. McCain 2008: Round 14: Education

This is the fourteenth of a weekly series of public forums on TMB. Watch for a new round every Monday.

In keeping with the start of a new school year, the topic of this week’s post is on education (I apologize the post is a day late, due to Labor Day).

The key similarities and differences, as far as I can tell, between McCain and Obama (source is CNN’s Election Center):

  1. Both candidates are in support of the overall goals of No Child Left Behind (NCLB), though Obama says the law has “significant flaws.” Neither agrees NCLB is sufficient in terms of education reform. Both support recruiting and rewarding high quality teachers.
  2. McCain is advocating for more “choice” in terms of education, including more charter schools and voucher programs. He also is advocating for expanding “virtual learning” through funding of “virtual schools” and online courses.
  3. Obama is in support of expanding early childhood education, including the investment of $10 billion a year to do so. He also is in support of providing substantial assistance in helping students pay college tuition. If I understand correctly, a big part of this assistance is in exchange for public service.

I’d be curious to hear what everyone thinks. I’m particularly interested in the voucher debate, especially in light of the fact that last year voters in Utah (arguably the most conservative state in the nation) voted in favor of a referendum that overturned the Utah legislature’s voucher program. Voters opposed the vouchers in every county. Although Obama is theoretically open to the possibility of viable voucher programs, he has opposed voucher programs because of the way they would hurt the public schools. This same argument, as far as I can tell, is what made the biggest appeal to Utah voters. In other words, I saw the Utah rejection of vouchers as an ideological vote, not one concerning quibbles about policy (for most voters, anyway). In this respect, it appears to me that Utah voters are more aligned, ideologically, with Obama than McCain.

Your thoughts?

Next week: Political Corruption

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29 Responses

  1. […] Posts Obama vs. McCain: Round 14: Education“Is Sarah Palin a Mormon?” Many Are AskingMcCain’s VP: Goodbye Romney, Hello Sarah PalinObama […]

  2. Any word on where Obama proposes to find $10 billion dollars?

    I like the notion of vouchers very much, but I was against it in Utah because the proposal lacked definition in where the money would be coming from a few years after inception and, if I recall correctly, lacked enforcement of quality education.

    Somehow there needs to be an overhaul of the public education system to allow better tailoring to a child’s educational needs. Right now – common in Utah – putting a single, often inexperienced, and often under-trained teacher in an over-crowded classroom does not provide the individual attention children often need (for a “one sized fits all” approach does not accurately reflect the many different ways each child learns.)

    Vouchers appear to be a nice way to address that lack of individual attention: it allows parents to select the best school for their child’s abilities, interests, and learning-style while promoting competition between schools. (The theory being that by competition schools will create a better product to gain more students to gain more funding.)

    It’s just, like the voucher proposal in Utah, no one seems to know where to get the money from or how to ensure that the charter schools are providing sufficient education or even what “sufficient education” is.

  3. “Any word on where Obama proposes to find $10 billion dollars?”

    $10 billion is peanuts to the Iraq war. The sooner they get out of Iraq, the sooner the gov’t will have more money to play with in regards to things like health care and education.

  4. Dennis, these forums have just been fantastic. I have thoroughly enjoyed the discussion they have created.

    FD raises a valid point – the Iraq War has been excessively expensive. A lot of good programs could have been funded had we avoided it (or we could have worked on our debt). However, I take issue with it for two reasons:

    1. Iraq has become a scapegoat for the Left to justify any and all spending projects. It was even used to blame Bush for the bridge collapse last year. Give me a break. Janell is right to ask where the money is going to come from. I’m hoping Obama will stick to his promises to bring change – and that includes stopping all the political blame game and starting to be honest with the American people.

    2. Even an Iraq pullout would not be as cheap as it seems. The pullout itself will be very expensive, as Joe Biden used to remind us, and would take time. Further, even Obama now admits that we will have to maintain people there. Had we pulled out last year when Obama claimed the surge would fail, it would have been expensive indeed to go back and clean up the chaotic mess that would have ensued without any kind of stabilizing presence.

    I am more interested in seeing Obama follow up on his promise to start transferring a lot of costs to the Iraqi government with its massive budget surpluses.

    Vouchers are good in theory – competition should force schools and teachers to perform better. But I don’t know that it will translate to practice. Public schools have a hard time competing. We need to overhaul the incentive structure. Merit-based pay might work, but it’s a tricky situation as well. (For a good economic analysis – from the Left – of merit pay visit Tim Layton’s blog).

    I must say that when I read Obama’s book I was very impressed with his ideas about education. I don’t hear McCain discuss it with such clarity. I think this issue goes to Obama.

  5. Janell: Any word on where Obama proposes to find $10 billion dollars?”

    TFD: “$10 billion is peanuts to the Iraq war.”

    It may be peanuts, but I think Janell raises a very good question. I don’t know the answer, but I’m skeptical about Obama and early childhood education. I personally don’t see it as the priority that Obama wants to make it, and I think that a majority of voters would agree with me. In short, Obama is going to have trouble selling this. This won’t sit well with moderates and conservatives who are already leery about the government taking over their children’s lives.

    Other than this, I am very much in agreement with Obama on education. I highly doubt you will see much of a difference from McCain regarding the number one problem: not paying (good) teachers enough money. And this is why I have opposed vouchers. I am in agreement with Ryan that a voucher system could actually be a good thing, but I also agree with him that the public schools would likely be hurt. The issue then turns into a major social justice issue that matters to everyone. Suddenly public education turns into the court-appointed attorney for the poor, in competition with the star-studded attorneys for the wealthy. Do I need to spell out the consequences here? I agree that this is not the way it has to end up with a voucher system, but I worry that it is the way that it would, in reality, be. In short, I would not be sold on a voucher system unless these social justice issues are seriously taken up, and I don’t see McCain and co. doing so.

  6. Good point, Ryan. It’s hard to remember sometimes that an Iraq pullout won’t be free. Plus once all the troops get home, they need to be taken care of. So both of those things are expenses that have to be taken into account. There’s no way around the former and hopefully whichever gov’t is in power won’t try to weasle its way out of the latter. That being said, the clock is ticking and although the proper timing for leaving Iraq has to be considered, every day spent there is coming at the cost of other things.

    Dennis, I have to echo what Ryan said about these forums. They’ve been great. I’m actually going to be a bit sad when the election is over. :)

  7. I disagree with both. The federal government should leave education alone period. It is none of their business. Schools should be funded, run, and maintained ideally on a community level, or the state level at the highest.

  8. Jeff, a lot of countries have been very succesful providing public education through federal guidelines. There’s a difference between the federal government providing standards versus the government providing the execution of what goes on in the classroom. My guess is you’re mostly opposed to the latter, but also the former?

    In my personal experiences the best system would have federally mandated standards with community execution. A more common bar with more smaller district divisions.

  9. I disagree with both. First, the constitution does not allow for either; and second, I just don’t think it is the government’s responsibility to make sure everybody gets a uniform, government-sponsored education.

    Just because it can be done successfully doesn’t mean it should be done.

  10. Jeff Thayne: “Just because it can be done successfully doesn’t mean it should be done.”

    I don’t understand. If something is successful, then why would you oppose it? Or conversely, would you still hold your ideological position even after it results in failure?

  11. I don’t measure the rightness of an action by its results. I’m pretty sure you don’t either… unless you believe that the ends always justify the means.

    I oppose it because I believe in a small federal government. I think that responsibility for education—even the standards of education—should fall on the parents and the local community. Even if a national government can do it well, I believe it is usurping power that should belong to local communities. Personally, I don’t think that a national government can do it well, but I’m not using that as the basis for my qualm.

    A national government that can define “educated” is a government that has more control than it should.

  12. Jeff, I’m having a hard time wrapping my head around your comment too. Historically, America’s intellectual strength has come from its adoption of public education and the equality of opportunity a baseline standard of education can provide to a citizen. I can respect your belief that it isn’t the government’s responsibility to provide education, but am stymied by your response.

    Public education right now as currently consituted with state and local community standards has some huge flaws. We know from other countries that national standardization can work much better. You’re opposed to federal involvement, and that’s fine, but what alternatives do you view as superior?

  13. I actually disagree with attributing America’s intellectual strength to public education. I see it the other way around.

    Personally, the alternative I believe that is a mixture of homeschool, private school, or community funded schools. I don’t even really think it should be a state function at all, I only said that before because I don’t have the same constitutional qualms with it that I have with federal involvement.

    I think homeschool/private school/locally funded schools are morally and intellectually superior to government funded education. I don’t see anything good coming out of public school except a nation of socialists.

  14. In correction, I don’t see “a nation of socialists” as a good thing.

    Also, in response to the challenge of varying qualities of education, I don’t think a universally enforced government standard is the answer. I think a possibility is for private institutions to rank schools or provide standards that the schools can choose to adhere to. If parents do not like the way their local school does it, they could homeschool or find another school.

    In other words, I believe that turning the whole system to the free market will work wonders for the system.

  15. Jeff,

    I can actually appreciate what you are saying. I don’t totally agree, but I think that it would be ideal if education were not federally regulated. I personally think NCLB is a joke.

    But I do think that turning the whole system to the free market should be tagged for what it is: an unverified social experiment. Now it’s easy for people like you and me to say what should be done for education. But can you really in good conscience, in actual practice and not just in theory, turn the whole educational system over to the free market? This is my big problem with libertarian ideals — they insist that a free market is the answer to all our problems, but they never consider what their ideals will do in the interim to reaching the utopia they espouse. In this respect, turning the whole educational system to a free market will be very detrimental to so many people. A more egalitarian educational system is that it helps provide opportunity to those who otherwise would not have it. And I think our country is far, far better off for it.

    But I like what you are saying in what it is suggesting for the GOP solutions. The GOP often talks about educational choice. But let’s be very clear — there ALREADY is choice. You can send your kids to whatever school you want or even home school them. What the GOP is really asking for is choice AND federal money. Not enough government money so that poor people could send their children to the fancy schools. That of course would defeat the whole point of the non-egalitarian society that the GOP wants to live in.

    Jeff, I do think that you and I might actually see eye to eye on what education ought to be. But I’m a pragmatist also, and we simply cannot trust the market in terms of education.

  16. Jeff certainly has a point.

    But I must agree with Dennis. Education is a public good. Public goods tend to be under-supplied in free markets. This means that, in the instance of shortage, only the wealthy could educate their children. This would be absolutely heartbreaking. The American dream – that everyone has an opportunity at making their life better – would be gone.

    There are cultural, economic, and national security justifications for federal regulation of education. Culturally, we have an interest in an educated public – one in which all citizens are given a basic yet broad education. Economically, education is a key factor in growth. Lack of education is a major cause of unemployment and stagnant production. From a national security standpoint, education is crucial. We need bright minds to develop solutions – not just wealthy minds.

    The university is the pinnacle of educational achievement. This is not for everyone. But it is important that those who do go to college have all met certain standards; otherwise, the university experience is lacking as many students simply play catch-up.

    Many parents lack the time, resources, and knowledge to sufficiently educate their own children – in addition to the fact that many parents have jobs already!

  17. My dear wife home schools two of our girls. If you go back to the Founding Fathers, which is where we should be to begin with, you not find any notion of Public education. Having said that however, I understand the reality of todays world. Life has been orchastrated such that moms are not in the home, communities are not taking care of their citizens and we live in a socialist nation. This means the “State” governs our lives. If you don’t believe that then you need to study what comprises a Republic (established by God and Founding Fathers) and the current condition in America. The Governement cannot fix education. It has wasted Bilions upon Billions of dollars trying and it only gets worse! As for Osama and McCain, they are the two faces on the same coin. Just look at the past 8 years and then the prior 8 years and tell me which party did the most damage. The answer is both! Look at McCains voting record not his rhetoric. The character of an individual is his choices not his word (or his running mate in this case). Obama is just as quilty when it comes to results over rhetoric. I do not willing support public education. It has failed us and will continue to deteriorate. What is the solution? It really is simple. The Constitution was created for a moral and upright people and is wholly inadequate to the government of anything else. In other words we need to return to the God given principles of Natural Law upon which our country was founded and then and only then will we see true change in our Nation.

  18. Gahlen,

    I agree.


    I would agree, except that I don’t see public education as improving the American condition. I relate more with John Taylor Ghatto’s point of view, as presented in “Dumbing Us Down: The Hidden Curriculum in Compulsory Education.” At this point, I see government provided education as having a stunting effect than an empowering effect.

  19. Jeff,

    So will your children not be going to public school? (Really, this is a serious question; I realize it could come off sarcastic, I don’t mean it to.) Given your views, I wonder how you could justify it.

    And a related question: Don’t you think that BYU suffers from the same problems? I’d say there’s very little difference between what is taught at BYU and what is taught at public universities.

  20. I’m speaking more about my experience in K-12. I don’t have any experience in public universities, so I can’t really say much about it.

    I don’t expect to send my children to public school.

  21. Jeff,

    In my case, there was no other option but public education. My parents could not have provided me as good as education as I received, nor could they afford private school. I am quite proud of my public education. I was in a special program in elementary school and junior high in which I learned critical thinking skills and research skills. I had excellent teachers, especially my high school journalism teacher, where I learned how to write very well. Certainly, many aspects were mediocre, but I wouldn’t be where I am today without my public education. I recognize, of course, in saying that, that in a completely different world in which education is qualitatively different, who knows where I would be.

  22. “Both support recruiting and rewarding high quality teachers.”

    I don’t think this works. Teachers don’t become teachers for the money, it obviously doesn’t motivate them. If they are, the either go into academia or are hopefully smart enough to choose another field.

    “He also is in support of providing substantial assistance in helping students pay college tuition. If I understand correctly, a big part of this assistance is in exchange for public service.”

    Unless things have changed since I went to college, financial aid was fairly easy to get and fairly substantial. I cam from a humble, though certainly not impoverished, and financial aid covered most of my tuition.

    I would rather see the money put into the many public school districts which are near bankrupt.

  23. Iceland, Norway, Australia, Canada, Ireland, Sweden, Switzerland, Japan, Netherlands, France, and Finland spend a greater percentage of their GDP on education than does the United States. See http://hdrstats.undp.org/indicators/99.html

    These are countries with whom we trade and compete economically. Economic competition aside, every country has to spend its GDP on something. What we spend it on reflects our values.

  24. Tim,

    I don’t know when you went to college, but things have changed a lot since I went. The emphasis has shifted from aid and scholarships to loans that can’t be canceled in bankruptcy. A hundred years ago this country made a big commitment to free and universal high school education. Imagine what the country would be like if that commitment hadn’t been made. Not that everyone should go to college, but some form of trade or technical schooling is increasingly important for people to grab hold of the rungs on the economic ladder and to keep our economy competitive. This needs to be provided either in high school or at the post-high school level.

  25. I don’t disagree with you Leo. But I don’t think we should be worrying about colleges when we have much larger problems with elementary and high schools.

    And I think the trade and technical schools are huge. I’m not sure how effective it is supporting college kids when barely half of them graduate. Not that college isn’t important, but getting kids to college doesn’t guarantee anything.

  26. Tim J:

    I don’t think this works. Teachers don’t become teachers for the money, it obviously doesn’t motivate them. If they are, the either go into academia or are hopefully smart enough to choose another field.

    Clearly it’s not all about the money for (most) teachers. But I think that this solution might “work” more than you’re giving it credit. I have a friend who is a teacher who has argued that the number one (first) remedy to educational issues is “pay teachers more money.” Clearly he is interested in higher pay.

    One thing that my friend would argue is that all of the people who are interested in money who you are talking about (and hence go into other fields) would be more enticed by teaching if the pay were better (including yours truly). So what happens is that there are thousands of thousands of people who would be excellent teachers who instead go into something else. Many of these otherwise motivated individuals would be better than (some of those) who are currently teaching and would cause there to be greater competition for educational university programs and jobs. Now, we would need to be careful, lest teaching turns into a technified profession that is disconnected from what students really need.

    Another thing to consider is that it is likely that (many) teachers would perform better if they were making more money. Offering greater pay in a competitive field also gives one much more leverage to give lazy teachers the boot.

  27. I would also say that there are individuals who become teachers simply because they don’t have better job options. Certainly anyone who becomes a teacher could have become a number of other things, but there are a number of appealing things about becoming a teacher: good hours, benefits, summers off (usually), comfort (often). It’s a myth to think that every person who becomes a teacher could have done better but they just love those kids so much. Some simply are willing to be a teacher because it is relatively easy (if you’re willing to be a mediocre secondary educator, anyway). Being something like a football couch is an extra incentive for some.

    I say all this just to suggest that we shouldn’t think that our educational system is fine because those teachers love those kids even though they’re not getting paid well. The reality is that some teachers are lazy loafers. Why should we pay them more, some might ask? Well, we wouldn’t. We’d get rid of them, and we’d be able to get rid of them by having a more competitive system (with a corresponding increase in pay) to begin with.

  28. “One thing that my friend would argue is that all of the people who are interested in money who you are talking about (and hence go into other fields) would be more enticed by teaching if the pay were better (including yours truly). ”

    I’ll certainly agree with that. But it doesn’t sound as though the plan raising salaries, but providing bonuses.

  29. I have been sitting here reading a lot of your responses and I have to say I do not agree with a lot of you. I can see from the lofty ideals that you people have that you seems to look at the world through rose colored glasses. In the reality of our situation, many children rely on public education. Maybe in your upper middle class worlds you can afford to pay for the education of your children, but there are millions of parents who cannot. There are millions of parents who cannot educate their own children. My mother could not help me with my calculus and government, she had to work in order to keep me fed and clothed.

    We live in a broken society. The rich stay rich and the poor stay poor. This is a system that self perpetuates and keeps the status quo. In this system, the school gets as much money as the community around it generates. This works fine for wealthy individuals. But the more economically challenged individuals get the shorter end of the stuck.

    I cannot stand seeing people who truly believe that everyone can succeed with no type of help at all. Just because there is an example of a poor person making it popping up here and there does not mean that every poor person can do it. These people who do make it out of poverty to accomplish big things are usually somewhat special to begin with. I would think more socially disparaged people would rise above their status if this was not the case.

    Instead a lot people want to point and blame the poor for being poor. They blame the poor for being stuck in schools with collapsing ceilings and books that over 10-15 years old(as was my school). I guess its up to the students to learn roofing in their home parenting . The current school system punishes children for being born on the wrong side of the social status track. Where as the wealthier students are presented with better education and better learning environments.

    The home schooling issue really bothers me. I could see some parents home schooling their children, but what about those parents who didn’t go to a good school themselves? What about those parents who really aren’t that educated to begin with? Are they supposed to home school their children? Or what about the parents who think they know things and they really don’t? I guess they are supposed to teach their children as well. We have a specialized group of professionals(i.e. teachers) who are TRAINED in the art of teaching children. But hey that is just my opinion.

    I just want you guys to understand that it is on the government to help equalize the playing field for the children of this nation. The vast majority of the wealth in this nation is the hands of a small amount of people. These people get the best education whereas the rest of the nation(read: the majority) get the hand me down education. This keeps the social status machine moving. We are a society that is supposed to help and support one another, not stand by and judge people for things we don’t truly understand. So I guess I would like to just say I commend both candidates for at least taking a step in the right direction to help those of us who who cannot help.

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