Parties like it's 1999

Senator Barack Obama unveiled his education plan last week, and used the opportunity to promote his presidential campaign theme of bringing people together. In classic Third Way fashion, he argued for "a willingness to break free from the same debates that Washington has been engaged in for decades: Democrat versus Republican; voucher versus the status quo; more money versus accountability."

Though Obama's ideas aren't as fresh as he suggests (more on that later), he's surely right about one thing: the parties are mired in the tired debates they've been having since the 1990s. The candidates' K-12 education proposals are, by and large, the same old same old.

First consider the Democrats' plans. They are downright Clintonian--a bit ironic, as Senator Hillary Clinton is the only major candidate yet to offer comprehensive proposals. But there they are, the 90s hit parade of smaller class sizes (Joe Biden, Christopher Dodd, John Edwards), National Board-Certified Teachers (Biden, Dodd, Edwards, Bill Richardson), higher teacher salaries (Biden, Clinton, Obama, Richardson), and of course, more money (all, in some form or another). As Biden sums it up, "We know what we need to do: First, stop focusing just on test scores. Second, start education earlier. Third, pay educators more. Fourth, reduce class size. Fifth, make higher education affordable."

Nor are the creative juices overflowing on the Republican side. Vouchers are in (Rudy Giuliani, Mitt Romney, Fred Thompson), federal bureaucrats are out (Thompson, Mike Huckabee). Says Giuliani, "We're going to take the decision-making and we're going to put it in the hands of the people who really know the children, really care about the children, more than anyone else: the parents."                  

Democrats want more resources for the system, Republicans want to empower parents with more options. Yawn. Seeing this policy debate unfold is like watching a soap opera: you can step away for months or even years and, when you return, the plot has barely moved.

This stale loaf contains a few fresh slices. Consider the cross-over issues that are garnering support from both sides: charter schools (Clinton, Giuliani, Huckabee, Romney, Thompson, Richardson), merit pay (Huckabee, Romney, Obama), and incentive pay for teachers willing to tackle tougher assignments (Clinton, Biden, Dodd, Edwards, Romney). That these commonsense reforms have gone mainstream is a positive development worth celebrating, even though most of the candidates shade, hedge, caveat and condition them in various ways. (Obama, for example, favors merit pay plans backed by teacher unions.)

And almost every candidate has at least one good education idea that, with a little polishing, could become promising policy. Romney wants a tax credit for home schoolers. (Why not provide all parents a credit for out-of-school education expenses?) John Edwards wants a "West Point" for education--a national teacher training institution. (With only 1,000 graduates per year, why not aim to produce principals instead?) Giuliani seeks a voucher program for active-duty military families. (Why not provide such a benefit to Iraq veterans, too?) Dodd would create a Virtual Learning Innovation Fund for districts, states, non-profits, and universities to create high-quality online courses. (Why not fund students directly to take such courses?) Huckabee wants to promote art and music education (his "weapons of mass instruction") and to impose "reasonable waiting periods" for teachers to earn tenure. (Why not promote history and literature, too?) Richardson would convene a "National Summit on Educational Standards and Accountability" to develop national "Gold Standards" for voluntary adoption by the states. (Why not provide incentives for states to get on board, too?)

And that brings us back to Obama. He offers some promising new ideas as well. Clearly his favorite is the teacher residency program--modeled after Chicago's Academy for Urban School Leadership--which places aspiring teachers in year-long internships in high-quality, high-poverty schools. And he would double the federal investment in education R & D--a wonky but worthwhile proposal.

Yet his 15-page plan also brims with staid notions from previous decades. He would require all education schools to be nationally accredited (you're welcome, NCATE), support Professional Development Schools (remember that one?), and fund dropout prevention programs (a dubious notion since the only effective dropout "programs" are effective schools).

Obama's rhetoric feels fresh, even compelling:

"I do not accept an America where we do nothing about six million students who are reading below their grade level--an America where sixty percent of African-American fourth graders aren't even reading at the basic level. I do not accept an America where only twenty percent of our students are prepared to take college-level classes in English, math, and science--where barely one in ten low-income students will ever graduate from college.... This kind of America is morally unacceptable for our children. It's economically untenable for our future. And it's not who we are as a country."

And yet, doesn't it sound familiar?

"Now some say it is unfair to hold disadvantaged children to rigorous standards. I say it is discrimination to require anything less--the soft bigotry of low expectations.... It is a scandal of the first order when the average test scores of African-American and Latino students at age 17 are roughly the same as white 13-year-olds'. Whatever the cause, the effect is discrimination. Children who never master reading will never master learning. They will face a life of frustration on the fringes of society...."

That was Governor George W. Bush, on September 3, 1999. Perhaps the reason education is such a bust on the 2008 campaign trail is because voters have heard it all before.

More By Author