Barack Obama on Education
Education has not received much attention in the Presidential campaign so far. Each candidate has set forth views on the subject but viability of specific ideas has not been debated and strategies for enactment and implementation have not been detailed.
Senator Barack Obama has a broad program that relies on significantly greater federal funding and especially targets early education and teacher training. He believes the controversial No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law is good in intentions but poorly designed and vastly under-funded. He would improve NCLB assessments and accountability and, in support of a pointed criticism of the mandate, support rather than punish schools that under-perform. He proposes a “Zero to Five” plan that promises care and education starting in infancy to prepare children for kindergarten. Early Learning Challenge Grants would help states implement the idea. Obama would set up a Presidential Early Learning Council similar to the one created in his home state of Illinois while he was a state senator. The Council would promote collaborations and coordinate the use of state and federal funds for a range of early childhood programs such as Head Start, early childhood special ed, and child welfare and child abuse prevention. He would involve private, corporate, and non-profit sectors in the initiative. Obama does not support vouchers, saying, “I believe children in need would truly be left behind in a private market.” He does support charter schools, seeing them as a way to experiment and improve competition among public schools.
Obama believes teachers are the most important contributor to student success. He wants to transform the teaching profession with an aggressive program to recruit, prepare, retain, and reward educators. Teacher Service Scholarships would cover 4-year undergraduate and 2-year graduate quality- training in exchange for working at least 4 years in a high-need location or field. All teacher preparatory programs would require professional accreditation, and school/university partnerships would create Professional Development Schools. Teacher Residency Programs that include living stipends during training would prepare knowledgeable instructors for needy districts. Because 30 percent of new teachers leave within 5 years, Obama would fund Career Ladder Initiatives that create strong mentoring programs and reward teachers and school districts that participate. He would give additional compensation to teachers who excel and would create incentives for sharing best practices. Believing the abilities of principals’ impact on student achievement and teacher retention, he would enhance State Leadership Academies to provide professional development opportunities for principals.
Noting that only 70 percent of students graduate high school, with an even lower percentage in urban areas, Obama offers several programs to attack the dropout rate and close the achievement gap. He suggests longer school days and school year, substantive summer learning opportunities, college outreach assistance for lower-income students, and high-quality after-school programs. Middle School is a crucial period and the optimum time to address problems to prevent later drop out. In the Senate, he introduced the “Success in the Middle Act,” which would provide funds to assist at-risk students. Safety in schools is vital to learning, but Obama disputes typical “zero tolerance policies.” He advocates teaching proper conduct and demanding the same high standards in deportment as in academic achievement. He has introduced the “Positive Behavior for Effective Schools Act” with strategies to head off bad behavior before it starts. He promotes strong parental involvement and school-family contracts. The candidate believes English Language Learners must be provided transitional bilingual education and schools held accountable for their success.
College costs have soared. Two million qualified students will not pursue higher education between 2001 and 2010 because of finances. The candidate seeks creation of the American Opportunities Tax Credit that will be universal, fully refundable, and greatly reduce the cost of college, especially at public institutions. Obama’s first bill in the Senate sought to increase the maximum Pell Grant. In addition, the application process for aid must be simplified, he says.
Obama’s goals are ambitious and, at approximately $18 billion a year, the package would be costly for the federal government. Claiming fiscal responsibility, he proposes paying through delaying the NASA Constellation Program for 5 years, more effectively using the negotiating power of the government to reduce procurement costs, auctioning surplus federal property, reducing incorrect payments discovered by the Government Accounting Office, and using savings that result from ending the war in Iraq. He also advocates more educational research to facilitate “investing in what works.”#