Elizabeth Hartline Green
Where do the candidates stand on education? Barack Obama on education.
This is the fourth installment in an ongoing series on where the candidates stand on education.
Next on our list, we have Senator Barack Obama.
Senator Obama has promoted a long list of educational reforms he is in favor of, ranging from increased access to Advanced Placement courses to expanding summer school programs. Generally, the common thread in his educational positions is his belief that school funding must be increased in all aspects of education.
Sen. Obama is in support of expanding the Head Start preschool program for low-income children, and voted to reauthorize the program earlier this summer. Obama was also in the Illinois State Senate when its preschool program for low-income children was instated. Unlike other Democrats, though, universal preschool is not in his platform, nor has he publicly spoken, to my knowledge, about universal pre-k.
Sen. Obama was not yet in the Senate when No Child Left Behind was authorized, but has claimed, alternately, both that it should not be reauthorized and that it should be substantially reformed, with funding increased. For the most part, though, Obama says that NCLB should continue to demand accountability from states, but should increase funding and define success more broadly. Sen. Obama has said that he will produce a detailed education plan that will deal with these issues; if so, the issue of how to reform No Child Left Behind will likely be addressed. Even without this document, though, his position on NCLB will likely become more clear soon, as the Act is up for reauthorization very soon.
Teacher pay is a tricky issue with Senator Obama. It seems that he would like to institute widespread merit pay (where teachers are paid for performance, as opposed to the pay schedules that are typical in most states) and hazard pay (where teachers in low-performing schools are paid more). These stances, however, aren’t very popular with teachers unions, who believe that merit pay uses poor measures of teacher quality (like standardized test scores) that discourage high-quality teachers from teaching in low-quality schools and also allows principals to play favorites. As teachers unions are major players in the Democratic Party, some have accused Senator Obama of softening his stance on these and other school reform issues in order to keep their support (free subscription needed). Senator Obama does propose increased pay for all teachers, though, which is more likely to win him union favor.
Senator Obama’s educational theme seems to be a push for innovation. Thus, he is for charter schools (which he feels support change and progress) and is against vouchers (reasoning that they take resources away from public schools). One of Senator Obama’s pet educational ideas is what he calls innovation districts. The innovation districts plan would let school districts apply for grants to institute education reforms, and 20 districts across the country would receive the grants. The innovation districts bill would appropriate $1.5 billion yearly for these districts, or about $75 million per district. Theoretically, those districts will then be viewed as models for educational innovation in other districts, although there are no guidelines in place for assisting replication of these programs in his plan. Senator Obama introduced the innovation districts bill both in 2006 and in 2007 in the Senate, and it is still in committee.
Other education bills that Obama has introduced in the Senate include a plan for increasing the maximum Pell Grant and instituting a mentoring program for women and minorities in educational programs sponsored by the Department of Energy. The first died in committee, and the second has been passed by the Senate. Additionally, Obama introduced two bills that passed the Senate within the Higher Education Amendments of 2007 that propose to establish teaching residency programs and increase funding for predominately black colleges.
It will remain a bit nebulous what Obama would do with education until (and possibly after) he produces his detailed education proposal, whenever that may be. Right now, though, it seems his solution to our country’s educational problems would be to dramatically increase federal funding for education, which may be possible if he can build widespread support for the suggested programs (though it will be an uphill battle).