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McCain, Obama Advisers Spar on Education Reform

September 10, 2008 at 6:20 PM EDT
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Among the issues being debated among the campaigns of Sens. John McCain and Barack Obama is education, with each candidate seeking to define positions on school spending and the No Child Left Behind initiative. Education advisers for McCain and Obama detail the candidates' plans.

JIM LEHRER: And next: the education issue.

Beyond Virginia’s importance as a battleground state, Barack Obama had another reason for visiting the state today. He laid out his education policies.

Gwen Ifill reports on where the candidates stand on education.

GWEN IFILL: Barack Obama went to high school this morning to assume the role of teacher: contrasting his education record with John McCain’s.

BARACK OBAMA: Instead of just talking about school choice, I helped pass legislation to double the number of charter schools in Chicago. Instead of talking about the need to provide teachers in undeserved areas, I introduced legislation that signed into law a few weeks ago, that would train and supply high-quality teachers to teach in areas in need.

So that’s my track record.

Let’s talk about his for a moment. He marched with the ideologues in his party and opposing efforts to hire more teachers, fully fund No Child Left Behind and make college more affordable.

GWEN IFILL: The two campaigns’ battle over who would be best for the nation’s schools has also spread to the airwaves.

NARRATOR: John McCain voted to cut education funding, against accountability standards. He even proposed abolishing the Department of Education. And John McCain’s economic plan gives $200 billion more to special interests, while taking money away from public schools.

NARRATOR: “Education Week” says Barack Obama hasn’t made a significant mark on education, that he’s elusive on accountability, a staunch defender of the existing public school monopoly. Obama’s one accomplishment? Legislation to teach comprehensive sex education to kindergartners.

GWEN IFILL: There is some agreement between the two candidates. Both want to change the No Child Left Behind law, reward teachers who serve in under-served areas and inner cities, and provide merit pay to high-performing teachers.

But the differences are defining. Obama opposes the use of school vouchers. McCain supports them, declaring at last week’s Republican Convention that education is the civil rights issue of the century.

JOHN MCCAIN: When a public school fails to meet its obligations to students, parent — when it fails to meet its obligations to students, parents deserve a choice in the education of their children. And I intend to give it to them.

MCCAIN: Some may choose a better public school. Some may choose a private one. Many will choose a charter school. But they will have the choice, and their children will have that opportunity.

GWEN IFILL: Obama proposes spending $19 billion in new education spending. McCain has suggested spending remain at current levels.

Ranking education

GWEN IFILL: For more on the candidates' education plans, we turn now to two senior campaign officials. McCain adviser Lisa Graham Keegan is the former chief of Arizona's public school system. And Obama adviser Melody Barnes is the former executive vice president for policy at the Center For American Progress.

Welcome to you both.

First, Melody Barnes, I want you to respond to the ad we just saw which accused Barack Obama of supporting sex education for preschoolers.

MELODY BARNES, Obama Campaign Adviser: It's offensive and preposterous. That we would take such a serious matter of training our young children to defend themselves against sexual predators, which is actually the subject matter of the legislation at hand, and turn that into an ad about Barack Obama trying to teach 5-year-olds about sex before they can read, is absolutely preposterous.

I would think that every parent, every policy-maker in this country would support what Senator Obama actually was supporting, and we shouldn't turn something so serious into a political football.

GWEN IFILL: Lisa Graham Keegan, I want you also to respond to the ad that we saw that the Obama people -- the charges they made against John McCain, that he wanted to, among other things, abolish the Department of Education and if you want to respond to what Melody Barnes said as well.

LISA GRAHAM KEEGAN, McCain Campaign Adviser: Well, first of all, I think it's really important, what Melody says is not the case, and I would really encourage your viewers to take a look at that law. You can seen it online -- I am quite sure by now. That's where I found it.

Read it. It is not about sexual predators. It is about sexual education for 5-year-olds. It is quite comprehensive. I would have opposed it mightily as a legislator and then as a state school chief and as a parent. So, I just encourage the public to take a look at it.

And on the issue of the Department of Education, I had the privilege of being John McCain's surrogate at our platform committee, where one of my jobs was to argue mightily in favor of the important role of the U.S. Department of Education, because our party does have a few people who are dubious.

But Sen. McCain won the day with his position that, at this time in our nation, it is critical that the federal government and the states get together. And we are serious about this issue, because we have fallen so far behind. That's just an outright lie.

GWEN IFILL: I would like to ask you both about where, on the scale of issues that the campaigns are addressing, education ranks.

Lisa Graham Keegan, in "The New York Times," you said education obviously is not the issue Sen. McCain spends that much -- the most time on.

Is that -- was that a correct assessment what he...

GWEN IFILL: Well, go ahead. Pick it up.


GWEN IFILL: You said it.


What they said to me was, clearly, is this not something that the senator spends most of his time on. I said, it doesn't have to be the thing he spends most of his time on. He's a passionate advocate. He helped us in Arizona pass public charter schools in 1994, in collaboration with the Hispanic Community Forum leader named Tommy Espinoza, a strong Democrat, somebody who is strongly in favor of John McCain.

But that was 14 years ago, public charter schools. John McCain got together with Ginny Walden Ford in D.C. who organized parents in D.C. who wanted school choice for their children who are in dangerous schools and their kids can't read. He's been with them for a decade.

Finally, that small bill has passed in D.C. John McCain knows this issue. He's committed to it as an issue of social justice and civil rights. And he owes nobody any apologies for his passion on the topic. And he will continue to be a passionate advocate and in favor of those of us who get up every morning and do this work ourselves.

GWEN IFILL: I do want to get back to the question of where John McCain and Barack Obama stand on charter schools and choice in general, but I also want you to answer this question, Melody Barnes.

On a scale of one to 10, or whatever you choose, how does education rank as an issue for Barack Obama?

MELODY BARNES: Well, I think, as we saw in the piece that was shown before we started our conversation, Sen. Obama was just here today talking about this issue.

He's been talking about it repeatedly. And, unlike Sen. McCain, he's actually proposed putting funding and real measures, real reform, and accountability measures on the table to deal with this issue. It's incredibly important for the -- to make sure that parents have choices, to make sure our children are able to compete, and also because it ties into our economic issues.

If we aren't educating our students today, we're going -- they're going to be out-competed, as Sen. Obama says, later on, further down the road. Our country simply can't sustain the track that we're on right now.

Spending on education proposals

GWEN IFILL: Well, let's talk about Barack Obama's -- and we will get to Lisa Graham Keegan on this as well -- his approach to choice, matters of school vouchers and charter schools. How does he prioritize those things?

MELODY BARNES: In fact, yesterday, when he gave his speech announcing his new proposals on education, he said that he's putting additional resources into school choice. We're going to double the amount of funding for federal charter schools, charter schools that were first proposed by Democrats. And Lisa referred to that earlier.

He's also going to support a broader portfolio of choice -- over half-a-dozen options for parents, magnet schools, charter schools, Montessori schools, et cetera -- options for parents, so that they have an opportunity to choose the best choice -- the best option for their children.

But, at the same time, he doesn't believe that we should be pouring public resources into private schools. And what Sen. McCain has been supporting actually doesn't really offer a choice for parents, because the resources aren't there to do it.

GWEN IFILL: John McCain on vouchers and school choose, Lisa Graham Keegan?

LISA GRAHAM KEEGAN: I don't know what that means, when Melody says the resources aren't there to do it.

The public has quadrupled its spending on education in real dollars since 1958. Sen. Obama said he wants to use this as a model, a program that came out in 1958, National Defense Education Act. It failed to increase mathematics achievement.

Sen. McCain is saying , look, Sen. Obama sends his kids to a private school, and, yet, he would keep other families, families who can't afford to make that choice, from making the same choice.

Sen. McCain is about whatever choice works for children. Let that money that the public invests follow kids into schools that work, that work demonstrably and can prove it. That's what he's all about. That is what he has been about. And he has crossed party lines to do it when he needs to. He's absolutely focused on individual students' attainment wherever they can get it.

GWEN IFILL: And just to clarify that spending question, how much more money -- or should there be any more money spent to support these kinds of proposals, Lisa Graham Keegan?

LISA GRAHAM KEEGAN: Well, Sen. McCain supported -- Sen. McCain supported No Child Left Behind.

And since the passage of No Child Left Behind, over the past six years, federal education spending has increased almost 50 percent. We spend $38 billion. Now, we haven't had the achievement gains to go with it yet. Sen. McCain believes accountability is critical. We absolutely have to increase our standards at the state level, increase the achievement of kids, but also continue to expand choices for parents, so that there are more excellent options.

Stances on No Child Left Behind

GWEN IFILL: No Child Left Behind is one of those lightning rods in this campaign. It gets reaction wherever you go.

What does Barack Obama think should be -- what does he believe should be done to fix, if it's necessary, No Child Left Behind?

MELODY BARNES: Well, Sen. Obama believes that there are good ideas in the No Child Left Behind Act.

He doesn't -- he believes the idea that you either have to be a reformer or for accountability is actually a false choice. Both of those things go hand in hand. So, he supports the legislation, but believes it needs to be fixed. We need better accountability measures. We need better assessment of student performance, so that we can make sure the act is doing what it should do.

But, at the same time, we have give schools and principals and teachers the resources they need in order to meet those -- those accountability goals. That isn't happening right now. President Bush has not honored his commitment to fund it. And, repeatedly -- I mean, let's be real -- repeatedly, Sen. McCain has voted against education.

He's voted against No Child Left Behind additional funding over and over and over again, against additional training for teachers over and over again, and against Head Start repeatedly. The list goes on and on.

So, the idea that resources have increased is actually barely true, and certainly Sen. McCain has not been supportive of that.

GWEN IFILL: Where is John McCain, Lisa Graham Keegan, on No Child Left Behind?

LISA GRAHAM KEEGAN: Well, as I said, he's a strong supporter of standards and accountability. He believes that kids, though, need the dollars that the ESEA, the Elementary and Secondary Act, provides through No Child Left Behind immediately for tutoring and the extra help that they need.

This argument that there's not been more money is just ridiculous. There is not an organization in the nation that will argue that more money is all we need. We have literally quadrupled our expenditures per pupil since 1958 in real dollars. That's a fact.

Every serious organization in the country right now, bipartisan, the Civil Rights Commission, the Commission on No Child Left Behind, the Center on Education and the Economy, have all said, money is not it. We have got to focus on excellent teachers in the classroom.

Sen. McCain wants to recruit from the top of universities in subject areas -- math and science -- not necessarily through colleges of education that, quite frankly, recruit low-achieving students. He wants the best students in the country to come into public schools. That's what makes a difference. That's a change.

'Money, accountability and reform'

GWEN IFILL: Is it a change, however, which is something that -- and I have to ask you this both very, very briefly -- that is doable at the current level of spending?

First to you, Lisa Graham Keegan.

LISA GRAHAM KEEGAN: Absolutely it is.

Look at states like Florida. Hispanic low-income kids in Florida outscore kids' average overall in at least five or six states. They have taken off. Choice, 50 percent of their teachers now coming through alternative routes, consequences, report cards, standards and assessments -- it absolutely can work. Teachers need these dollars. One of the things Florida did is got those dollars to teachers, and not out in central offices and bureaucracies.

GWEN IFILL: Melody Barnes.

MELODY BARNES: Money, accountability and reform all go together.

Money is not a silver bullet, but you can't get something from nothing. And Sen. McCain has not been supportive over the years over the resources needed. Sen. Obama has been and proposes the funding to get it done, along with accountability standards.

GWEN IFILL: Melody Barnes of the Obama campaign and Lisa Graham Keegan of the McCain campaign, thank you both for joining us.

MELODY BARNES: Great. Thank you so much.