Comparison: Presidential Candidates on Major Education Issues

According to the American Heritage Foundation, federal education spending has grown dramatically over the past six years under President Bush and the Republican Congress, yet more federal dollars have not improved American K-12 and higher education in that time frame. America continues to lag behind such countries as Japan and Korea in its educational accomplishments despite efforts to improve school systems. The Department of Education claims that education is primarily a state and local responsibility in the United States, although the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law provides the most visible federal control trend.

On the other hand, Teacher vs. Union states that perhaps the reason that our education system lags behind the education systems of other nations is because teachers must have the support and help of parents in order to effectively educate their students. “Unless teacher-parent relationships improve,” this site warns, “it is likely that Americans will continue to see our education system lag behind those of other nations.” In reality, the American education system is in turmoil and blame for its problems will continue to float from person to person and from group to group until the system improves.

Education is an emotional issue as it touches every American home through taxes, tax credits, and policies developed at local, state, and national levels. Whether states or the federal government should maintain control over school policies and financing is one overriding issue for this upcoming presidential election. Other issues are listed below, followed by a candidate-by-candidate perspective on these topics. In addition, information about the candidates’ past voting records and actions on education are included with links to sources so you can read more about how these candidates stand on American education.

The Issues

On The Issues defines many educational issues at both K-12 and college levels. Some issues listed below are gathered from that site, but we’ve expanded on them to provide more information. You may want to read about the other issues at that site to understand what the candidates haven’t discussed in this article. The links in the list below will take you to sites that explain each issue further. Despite our attempts to find the most unbiased links for this information, please take each source into account when you gain access to information.

  1. Charter schools: Charter schools are schools which are publicly-funded and publicly-controlled, but privately run; therefore, they may not need to adhere as many district rules as regular public schools. This choice is an alternative to public, private, and home schools, and provides what is known as a “nontraditional environment”. They are usually sponsored by local or state educational organizations who monitor their quality and effectiveness. Laws that govern charter schools vary from state to state.
  2. DOE: The Department of Education faces opposition from conservatives, who also favored the abolishment of this department in 1980. It’s important to reiterate that states and local sources bear the brunt of annual education costs, whereas the federal government (including the DOE) accounts for 9% of education spending. The arguments provided by many DOE abolitionists include the fact that the DOE’s $71.5 billion budget for about 5,000 employees exceeds the $38 billion last year (2% of the federal budget) spent on education. Additionally, some candidates view the DOE as a bureaucratic burden.
  3. Funding: No matter if the school is public or private, K-12 or college — educational funding is a major issue in this election. Jay Greene, author of “Education Myths,” points out that “If money were the solution, the problem would already be solved…We’ve doubled per pupil spending, adjusting for inflation, over the last 30 years, and yet schools aren’t better.” Despite this opinion, funding at the state and federal levels provides much needed help for poorer communities, whereas federal educational funding has suffered [PDF] recently at the hands of the Iraqi War and Homeland Security budgets. The important thing is to follow in this issue is the language, as support for smaller classes and for more buildings to house those classes usually means opposition to funding private schools.
  4. No Child Left Behind: NCLB is, perhaps, the most controversial issue in this upcoming election. However, trends seem to indicate that this law will face transformation both financially and in policy. Although this law calls for high standards and accountability for the learning of all children, several measures within this program have failed. Additionally, many schools continue to fail to meet the standards set by this program. See “Vouchers.”
  5. School Choice: School Choice generally refers to a school district that allows parents to decide which school within the district to use for their child(ren). As the On The Issue site states, the political issue is focused on whether to allow parental choice to include private schools, parochial schools, and home schooling at taxpayer expense. While taxpayer funding of parochial schools potentially violates the Constitutional separation of church and state, taxpayer funding of private schools remains controversial because it subsidizes parents who currently pay for private schools and who usually are more wealthy than the average public school family. However, about 90% of all students remain enrolled in public schools. Opponents against school choice have argued that the free-market theory does not work in the educational realm, and that allowing school choice will hurt more students than it helps. This issue is tied directly to Vouchers (see below).
  6. Social Promotion: Social promotion means that students are allowed to advance a grade to keep up with their peer group, even if they did not pass standardized tests. Usually 90% of K-12 students are promoted, 10% per year are retained. That child’s teacher and his principal usually make this decision. This topic is highly debated as research indicates, and common sense confirms, that passing students on to the next grade when they are unprepared neither increases student achievement nor properly prepares students for college and future employment. At the same time, research also shows that holding students back to repeat a grade without changing instructional strategies is ineffective.
  7. Teacher Testing: Current law maintains that states certify teachers and decide requirements; there are currently no national standards or testing. Most US states now require public school teachers to pass a standardized test such as the National Teacher Examination. Many critics against standardized tests (including those for students) believe that these tests are biased and that they discourage talented teachers from applying for teaching jobs. The issue of high-stakes testing has yet to surface substantially in the national political debate, although most advocates for higher teacher pay seem to oppose teacher testing in voting records.
  8. Vouchers: An education or school voucher, is a certificate that allows parents to send their child(ren) to a school of their choice rather than to the public school where they were assigned. Tax revenues pay for these vouchers, which usually are valued lower than the cost of one year of public education and that are valued at about one-half the cost of a private education. The National Education Association (NEA), an organization comprised of 3.2 million members who work at every level of public education, opposes private school tuition vouchers, especially when funds for vouchers compete with funds for overall improvements in America’s public schools. When you hear talk about “failed schools” that don’t meet standardization or any negative references to teacher’s unions, this usually implies support for vouchers. Alternately, talk about “increasing teacher pay” usually implies opposition to vouchers.

The Candidates

The candidates are listed below in alphabetical order by surname and their party affiliation is noted by (D) for Democrat or (R) for Republican after their names. While we strived to discover how each candidate felt about each issue listed above, all candidates were silent on the teacher testing issue and many candidates avoided some issues altogether. However, some voting and action records are noted to show a discrepancy between past support and current thought, or a continuation of their belief systems, or to illustrate how they might respond to the issues if asked.

Hillary Rodham Clinton (D)

You won’t find education listed as an issue on Clinton’s presidential campaign site, although she mentions education under the “Supporting Parents and Caring for Children” tab within her listed issues. You will, however, find more information about her stance on education at her Senate site than all the other candidates’ sites put together. Clinton doesn’t support vouchers to the point where she’s become less than moderate in her perspective on that issue. She also doesn’t support private tutors in exchange for smaller classrooms, nor does she support privatization.

Although her Arkansas record shows that she supports school choice, she believes that parents wouldn’t feel the need for private schools if public school systems were improved. The previous article on her voucher rhetoric, however, shows that her daughter was sent to private school in D.C. as she and husband, President Bill Clinton, advocated public education for the nation. Hillary supports charter schools, “as long as they are held to the same standards as public schools” and that they “do not drain the financial resources from public schools.”

Clinton sits on the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee (HELP), and she’s a strong advocate for the Head Start program (which she helped to create). She directly opposes the NCLB law, although she voted for that Act in 2001:

When the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLBA) was enacted, I viewed it as a historic promise between the federal government and educators – schools would be held to higher standards than ever before and the government would make a record investment in those schools to ensure that they would be able to meet the new expectations confronting them. Today, that promise has been broken. President Bush’s budget for 2006 provides $12 billion less than was promised by the No Child Left Behind Act, including $947.5 million less for New York.

As you can learn from her Senate site, her plans for educational reform include pay incentives for individuals to work in low-income communities, massive school renovations, student mentoring, teacher recruitment, funding for special education, and better access to higher education. The NEA has rated Hillary Clinton at 82%, indicating pro-public education votes (2003).

John Edwards (D)

A visit to John Edwards presidential committee site shows that this former North Carolina Senator lists education and a separate ‘college affordability’ topic under the broad heading of “Investing In Our Future And Our Communities.” This addition of a college topic makes Edwards one of the few candidates (mostly Democrat) who have directly addressed higher education. He also provides an novel approach to opportunities for high school dropouts with “one-on-one attention and a chance to earn a diploma at night or at a local community college.”

Edwards has also expressed support for Head Start and better teacher pay, and opposes federally funded vouchers to help parents pay for private school costs. Edwards voted for the NCLB Act in 2001, and he’s criticized President Bush for lack of funding for this program. Yet, Edwards did not vote on a failed Democratic amendment to a 2003 appropriations bill that would have increased funding to NCLB from $11.4 billion to $16 billion.

Edwards, both now and in his previous 2004 bid for presidency, remains critical about the “two school” system that he perceives exists in America, one for the rich and one for the poor. This perspective has led Edwards to vote against tutors in favor of smaller classrooms and student testing, and to endorse further federal spending for teachers. He also promotes a “college for everyone” program that allows students to pay for college with community service work.

Edwards is basically silent on the topics about charter schools and social promotion, although — as mentioned previously — he speaks out more about college education than any other candidate other than Hillary Rodham Clinton. One approach to college funding includes the elimination of bank funding, which would decrease federal subsidies to these financial institutions:

Banks that make student loans receive large federal subsidies and a guarantee against default. However, millions of students have borrowed directly from the U.S. Department of Education, receiving loans that have very similar terms but are far less expensive for taxpayers. Edwards will let all students borrow directly from Education. By eliminating bank subsidies on student loans, he will free up almost $6 billion a year to make college more affordable.

According to On The Issues, the NEA rated Edwards at 83%, indicating pro-public education votes (2003).

Rudy Giuliani (R)

Rudy Giuliani, former New York City Mayor, provides the following information on his presidential committee Web site:

As Mayor, Rudy Giuliani worked to reform the nation’s largest public school system, with over 1 million school children. He increased school funding and hired new teachers, while insisting on reforms that ended social promotion, abolished principal tenure, and created a Charter School Fund. Rudy is also a strong supporter of school choice, believing that it is one of the great civil rights issues of our time.

The goal of school choice is not so much about civil rights as it is to create competition between schools for education dollars, which may give public schools an incentive to perform better than without competition. Giuliani provided validation for this competitive perspective when he advocated privatizing failing schools with support for a New York City voucher program and with his perspective that charter schools create competition (all in 2000).

During his mayoral tenure, Giuliani refused to bargain with the teachers’ union about pay increases, and let city teachers go without contracts for over a year. While he railed against “untenable bureaucracy” in New York schools, he held vast political influence on the Board of Education — although his bid to take over the schools was unsuccessful. On the other hand, Giuliani spent hundreds of millions of dollars increasing funding to New York City’s art programs and reading programs, as well as to outfitting classrooms with computers. Despite this effort to help students, 59% of New York voters in 1999 disapproved of Giuliani’s education policies, and 70% were not satisfied with the quality of New York public schools under his leadership.

This failure to communicate and an ineffective agenda has been emphasized by his successor, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who recently has been described as the “darling of education reformers for what he’s done in New York City schools.” On The Issues does not provide an NEA rating for Giuliani.

John McCain (R)

You won’t find education listed on the “Issues” tab at John McCain’s official campaign site (his MySpace site also links to this page). Education is listed at McCain’s Arizona Senate site, but it’s linked to a page that carries press releases that haven’t been updated since 2002. What these sites lack is a link to McCain’s co-sponsorship of a bill that would eliminate barriers to higher education for undocumented students. Under that bill, which was introduced in 2001 and supported by 47 other Senate co-sponsors in 2006, students who finish high school and at least two years of college could obtain permanent legal residency and they could qualify for in-state tuition rates.

The House never took up this bill, which may have been fortuitous for McCain. In early August, McCain flip-flopped on his immigration stance, and he now supports a bill that would impose strict rules to end illegal immigration and that would restrict access to citizenship. At that same time, the Arizona Republic reported that nearly 5,000 people had been denied in-state college tuition, financial aid, and adult education classes this year under a new state law that bans undocumented immigrants from receiving those state-funded services.

Unlike his Web sites, McCain’s voting and action records on education are less mysterious if not more complex. John McCain’s record shows that he supported voucher programs in Washington D.C. (1997), a trial voucher program in 2001 that was an amendment to the NCLB Act, and that he proposed an amendment to authorize $1.8 billion a year for three years to establish a pilot school voucher program, paid for by the elimination of subsidies for ethanol, oil, gas, and sugar (1999). He is a huge advocate for charter schools, shown by his support for tax breaks instead of public funding for this alternative (1999). He also voted for private tutors instead of smaller classes and less testing for students, yet he feels that NCLB requires a review to “measure its full efficacy.” Finally, McCain was given a 45% rating by the NEA, indicating a mixed record on public education.

Barack Obama (D)

Senator Obama (IL), like Hillary Rodham Clinton, sits on the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee (HELP) and he’s a strong supporter of Head Start. And, like Clinton, Obama’s views on education are located on his Senate site rather than on his presidential committee site. He also sends his children to private school while he advocates public education.

One difference between Obama and Clinton is that Obama wasn’t in office when NCLB was enacted, so he would not open himself up to flip-flopping accusations if he opposed the program. Obama, however, has yet to address any NCLB issue – at least until recently. “No matter what the slogans say, millions of children are being left behind,” he shouted through rain to hundreds of supporters at a stump in New Hampshire. “Don’t tell me that a test score is all that matters.” These two sentences reveal Obama’s sentiments against NCLB. What does he plan to do about reform? That answer remains unclear.

During his short Senatorial term to date, Obama has proposed bills to expand summer reading programs and, in January 2007, Senator Obama reintroduced the Summer Term Education Programs for Upward Progress Act (STEP UP) to address the achievement gaps among schoolchildren in the early grades. The bill was included in a comprehensive proposal to improve U.S. competitiveness that passed the Senate in April 2007. Obama also leans toward a balance between issues that affect both K-12 and higher education. Sen. Barack Obama’s first piece of legislation in Washington in 2005 aimed to make college more affordable for students and closes a “loophole” for banks and lenders making education loans. This stance is similar to the one espoused by John Edwards.

Other proposals made by Obama are found on his Senate site. Although most bills reflect an interest in K-12 education, Obama has also addressed higher education through his HOPE Act (Higher Education Opportunity Through Pell Grant Expansion Act), which would increase the maximum Pell Grant from the current limit of $4,050 to a new maximum of $5,100. Pell Grants, need-based awards, are not indexed to the rising price of tuition or inflation. As a result, the current $4,050 Pell Grant maximum is $700 less in real terms than the maximum grant 30 years ago.

On The Issues doesn’t hand Obama an NEA rating, mainly because Obama entered office in 2004, and the ratings were prescribed in 2003. But, with Obama’s advocacy for free public college for any student with B-average and availability of affordable life-long, top-notch education for all Americans, he might earn a high score. On the other hand, he also supports private investments in schools such as charter schools and leans toward higher teacher pay in exchange for more teacher accountability. This last item, perhaps, is the closest any candidate has come to broaching the subject of teacher testing.

Ron Paul (R)

Although Paul has gained little recognition from mainstream media, he has gained overwhelming support at the grassroots level — mainly through the Internet. While his Presidential Campaign Committee site pushes lower taxes, border security, privacy and personal liberty and pro-life policies, education escapes the list. Nonetheless, he has made public statements about and voted for educational issues that reveal his beliefs about education policy – beliefs that have changed little since his bid for the Presidential office in 1998 as a nominee for the Libertarian Party while he remained a registered Republican.

Most of Paul’s popularity is derived from his argument against federal involvement in any venue. This stance does not preclude education, as he supports the abolishment of the Federal Department of Education (DOE). He also opposed the formation of the NCLB and continues to oppose that Act in favor of parental and local involvement with school policy. While Paul has supported vouchers for private and parochial schools (1997), he opposes the use of vouchers for public schools (as indicated by his lack of support for the D.C. voucher program in 1998). His stance on vouchers is complex, as he prefers tax credits to vouchers (1993):

Instead of expanding the Federal control over education in the name of parental control, Congress should embrace a true agenda of parental control by passing generous education tax credits. Education tax credits empower parents to spend their own money on their children’s education. Since the parents control the education dollar, the parents control their children’s education. In order to provide parents with control of education, I have introduced the Family Education Freedom Act (H.R. 612) that provides all parents with a tax credit of up to $3,000. The credit is available to parents who choose to send their children to public, private, or home school. Education tax credits are particularly valuable to lower income parents.

Despite his idealism, Paul has yet to explain how the federal government would respond to an approximate $25 billion loss in revenue if all private school students (about 10% out of 53 million students) were given this tax break. Add this to Paul’s proposal for a $1,000 per year tax credit for all teachers included in that tax credit bill, and you can add another $3 billion dollars to that tab (based on a 15:1 student: teacher ratio — see Elizabeth Hartline Green’s article for further explanation). This plan also reveals that Paul is a strong school choice advocate.

The NEA offers Paul a 67% rating on public education issues, indicating a mixed record.

Bill Richardson (D)

Democratic New Mexican Senator Bill Richardson wants to scrap the NCLB Act for inefficiency, yet he wants to establish a federal voluntary Pre-K program (such as the one he started in his state) as “an effective investment, preventing kids from getting involved in drugs, crime and getting pregnant later in their lives.” This willingness to use federal government in public education indicates a definitive route for using federal assistance that isn’t voiced by other Democrats.

Richardson also wants increase schoolteachers’ salaries (2004) with a minimum wage of $40,000 per year (2007), and he promotes charter schools as a reasonable alternative for school choice. Like most Democratic candidates, Richardson is against private school vouchers, a position that changed since 1996 when he supported vouchers to send children to any participating school: public, private or religious. Richardson also maintains a unique method to pay for higher education:

While other candidates talk about expanding access to higher education, I have already done it in New Mexico by investing nearly $100 million in need-based scholarships and using lottery profits to pay for tuition.

Richardson can brag about his New Mexico education reforms. In April 2005, he created the New Mexico State Higher Education Department with a cabinet secretary, and in 2006 he was the keynote speaker at 2006 National Latino Education Summit. However, early in his term as governor Richardson asked for the resignation of all state university regents, and reappointed donors and allies in the places of those who had stepped down. This action led to accusations of cronyism, political scandals and shadowy financial dealings.

Richardson has made education a priority as governor. While some measure his actions as successful, in reality it will take time to show true results for his innovations. On The Issues does not offer an NEA rating for Richardson.

Mitt Romney (R)

Click on the “Issue Watch” tab at former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney’s official site to discover that Romney relegates education to the bottom of this list — after terrorism issues, competition with Asia, and technology. He states:

At some point, I think America — and, importantly, the minority communities — are going to say, ‘it’s time to split with our friends, the unions and the Democratic Party, and put our kids first here.’ Unequal educational opportunity is the civil rights issue of our time.

Like Giuliani, Romney equates education with civil rights, an issue that isn’t listed on his priorities. Romney also wants to give principles the “the ability to manage their schools,” and he states that “we have to set our education goals higher” to compete globally. But, a mysterious comparison to 21st-century France seems inappropriate as he states, “We’re in a position where unless we take action, we’ll end up being the France of the 21st century: a lot of talk, but not a lot of strength behind it in terms of economic capability.”

In all cases, Romney seems to avoid the education issue by taking partisan potshots and by aligning civil rights with the Republican platform on his Web site. Like Ron Paul and Fred Thompson (see below), Romney wants to pull the federal government out of educational decision-making processes; yet, this stance is at odds with the rigid model represented by NCLB — a project that he fully supports (2007). This confusion is clearly reiterated in a video where Romney states that he is “reluctant” to pull federal government into the “parent-teacher partnership.” This video also substantiates Romney’s support for charter schools as a school choice.

Perhaps more could be learned from the Massachusetts Teachers Association Web site (MTA), where any reader can learn that the Massachusetts public school system suffered from cutbacks over the past two years:

The Republican [Romney] administration, during its four years in office, made numerous attempts to undercut the collective bargaining rights of educators and to advance questionable education policies. The Legislature agreed that these so-called “reforms” would do nothing to improve the quality of education for the almost one million public education students in the Commonwealth. The Legislature voted to extend due process rights to school nurses, to guarantee school support staff health insurance during the summer, to give creditable service to vocational ed teachers for training before entering teaching and to keep health insurance premiums for state employees at their fiscal 2006 levels. The importance of these votes is also reflected in the roll-call scores.

The above allegation seems to speak for Romney’s willingness to cut educational finances and to enforce political reforms, actions that seem in direct opposition to the statements that he makes on his official site. Romney also supports English language immersion and abstinence education (although he recently blasted Barack Obama for supporting age-appropriate sex education). Romney altered his position from closing the DOE (2002) to supporting the NCLB (2007), supported replacing underperforming schools with charter schools (2002), and advocated means-tested vouchers for both public and private schools (2002). On The Issues does not provide an NEA rating for Romney.

Fred Thompson (R)

Like McCain, you won’t find education listed on Fred Thompson’s official “I’m With Fred” site. In fact, the only ‘principle’ you’ll find listed here is Federalism. But, within his explanation on Federalism, Thompson states:

Perhaps the clearest example of federal over-involvement in state and local responsibilities is public education. It’s the classic case of how the federal government buys authority over state and local matters with tax-payer money and ends up squandering both the authority and the money while imposing additional burdens on states…A little more federalist confidence in the wisdom of state and local governments might go a long way toward improving America’s public schools. The most encouraging reforms in education are occurring at the local level, with options like charter schools. And often the best thing Washington can do is let the states, school districts, teachers and parents set their own policies and run their own schools.

This stance may explain Thompson’s voting history, where — as a Republican representative for the Senate from Tennessee — he voted against funding for smaller classes and student testing in favor of funding for private tutors (2001). Thompson voted for Educational Savings Accounts (1998, 2000), and for allowing more flexibility in federal school rules (1999). He also supported $75M for abstinence education in 1996, and he also voted for D.C. school vouchers in 1977.

Conclusion

Although Hillary Rodham Clinton leads the Democrats and Mitt Romney leads the Republicans in offering the most words about education, this verbal volume doesn’t mean that these two candidates have the last word on the issues. However, it does mean that they have given some thought to the topic, even though those thoughts are sometimes used for political rhetoric. Alternately, sometimes actions speak louder than words. In this case, and according to past voting and support records, Hillary Rodham Clinton (D) and John McCain (R) lead their respective parties for the sheer number of actions conducted by both individuals.

With that said, many voters reveal that they’d like to see all candidates do a better job of addressing education issues. Mainly, they complain that the candidates don’t offer viable solutions for educational problems. But, the campaign is early. Some candidates have come into the race recently, like Fred Thompson. Others may drop out, and still others may join the race at a later date. Plenty of time remains for voters to question the candidates and to fully understand how each one stands on education in America today.

Michelangelo is attributed with saying, “Ancora imparo,” or “I am still learning.” This saying continues to apply to parents, students, voters and candidates alike as this country begins to forge a new plan for educational policies and funding. Please take the time to learn more about the candidates and their viewpoints on education as this campaign progresses because any candidate may change a stance or philosophy as this race for the presidency plods along.

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