Education and the Presidential Campaign

, Paul M. Weyrich, Leave a comment

Throughout this prolonged
presidential campaign the three main candidates – Senators John S. McCain III
(R-AZ), Barack H. Obama (D-IL), and Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-NY) – have spent
most of their time arguing about the war in Iraq, the North American Free Trade
Agreement (NAFTA), the housing crisis, the economy and healthcare.  Oh yes,
and change of one sort or another, although the specifics of their calls for
change are difficult to discern.  Change for its own sake is not
necessarily a positive idea, and once we reach the general election campaign,
McCain and the Democratic nominee will have to provide more details about what
he or she wants to change and why.  Of course, details do not provide good
sound bytes for the nightly news, whereas “change” does, but educated voters
will want to know what they should expect for the next four

One of the issues the candidates have not discussed is education. 
What is the role of the Federal Government in education and what do they propose
to do about the abysmal public schools in America?  These questions and
more for the most part have remained unanswered in their speeches.  A quick
perusal of their campaign websites, however, gives some revealing answers about
their positions on education. 

McCain, the Republican nominee, begins by stating that he
understands that we are a nation
committed to equal opportunity, and there is no equal opportunity without equal
access to excellent education.”  Fair enough.  He proceeds to note
that parents should be able to choose the school their children attend,
criticizing Members of Congress who send their own children to private schools
but refuse to support school choice for others.  Then he uses another “c”
word – “we should let [schools] compete for the most effective,
character-building teachers, hire them, and reward them.”  Choice and
are two very effective tools for reforming our
schools.  I would add a third “c” to that list – curriculum – but, as
education should be a local issue, curriculum must be reformed at the state or
district level.  Finally, McCain claims that he will “pursue reforms that
address the underlying cultural problems in our education system – a system that
still seeks to avoid genuine accountability and responsibility for producing
well-educated children.”  What these cultural problems are he does not
say.  Most likely they would begin with the stranglehold teachers’ unions
have over the education system, stifling any dissent from or attempt to change
the status quo.  There is also the problem of family structure and support
in many working-class families but the President of the United States cannot
impose a top-down change in the nuclear family.  The family is the building
block of American society, not another social group to be manipulated by
bureaucrats and politicians (though some certainly are

Clinton is more precise in her education proposal.  She begins by
explaining her previous work with children, including a stint as a staff
attorney for the Children’s Defense Fund and various posts in Arkansas before
her sojourn as First Lady.  Her current education proposal outlines new
policies for each stage of education, beginning with early childhood.  She
wants prekindergarten for all four-year olds and nurse home visitations to help
new parents develop parenting skills.  The former would do nothing to
change the current dismal state of education while the latter would be an
expensive and invasive new mandate.  For K-12 Clinton proposes ending No
Child Left Behind (NCLB), which is not a bad idea.  She also wants to
recruit and retain thousands more
outstanding teachers and principals, especially in urban and rural areas” 
and “cut the minority drop-out rate in half,” although her solution is to throw
$1 billion more at them, providing “multiple pathways to graduation,” whatever
that means.  My favorite, though, is her goal of creating “‘Green Schools’
in order to reduce energy costs and eliminate environmental hazards that can
hinder children’s development.”  What more do I need to say. 
Education problem solved right there!

Obama’s layout is similar to Clinton’s but begins by listing the five
problems with American education as he sees them.  They are NCLB’s lack of
funding, America’s low scores in reading and math, the high dropout rate,
teacher retention and soaring college costs.  To alleviate these problems,
Obama wants to expand Head Start, help states move to voluntary, universal
pre-school; fund NCLB; make math and science a national priority (while not
mentioning history or English); and create and fund various other programs
geared specifically toward poor and minority students. 

All three candidates fail to address properly the problems in American
education.  McCain is on the right track by emphasizing competition and
choice but he lacks specific proposals.  Clinton and Obama both want public
education at an earlier age, which is unlikely to solve our problems, and to
throw more money at a broken system instead of doing the really difficult task
of repairing the system and cleaning out those who want no change, no
and no competition.

What these candidates should offer is a return to local control, an
emphasis upon improved and more rigorous curricula, school choice and
competition, and a significant reduction in the power of teachers’ unions. 
These would begin the process of improvement that we desperately need and make
education more flexible and responsive to peoples needs.  And that is real
change we could believe in.

Paul M. Weyrich is the chairman and CEO of the Free Congress Foundation.