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Candidates Flip-Flop on Education

Barack Obama and Sarah Palin can't make up their minds about how to improve our schools.

by
Greg Forster

Bio

November 1, 2008 - 12:20 am
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But the same Barack Obama has also endorsed the tired old nostrums that schools need more money and vouchers will hurt public schools. Never mind that education spending has doubled after inflation over the past thirty years, now reaching over $10,000 per student every year, with zero improvement in results to show for it. And Obama has never explained why competition from charter schools improves the system while competition from vouchers hurts it — nor could he, given that the empirical evidence firmly and consistently establishes that voucher competition improves public schools.

Last month, the Obama campaign’s education advisors made waves when they made it clear that Obama would replace rigorous academic standards with “portfolio assessment,” in which students earn passing grades by completing a certain amount of work rather than by demonstrating on tests that they’ve learned the material. So much for the transparency of information provided by testing, the one really amazing and revolutionary achievement of No Child Left Behind.

And, of course, Obama forged a close and long-lasting partnership with aspiring mass murderer Bill Ayers, a self-described “small-c communist,” in order to help Ayers promote his extremist ideas in the Chicago public schools. Thanks to Obama, for a period in the 1990s Chicago families were required by law to turn their children over to schools where they would be taught Ayers’s bloodthirsty message of hate.

So, taking one thing with another, it would appear that on education Obama is the world’s first radical free-market communist.

But until last week, Obama was certainly more of an education reformer than Sarah Palin. As Alaska governor, Palin made an alliance with the teachers’ unions, pushing for higher spending and opposing vouchers. She also did the unions a favor by shifting pension funds out of the state’s newly created defined-contribution plan — you know, the kind of plan that all of us mere mortals outside the civil service have — and back into the old, unreformed defined-benefit plan. (Running for governor, she had supported the switch to the defined-contribution plan.) And during the vice-presidential debate, she basically endorsed the unreconstructed teacher-union agenda: more money and lower (excuse me, “more flexible”) academic standards.

This “PTA mom” stuff may move the swing voters, but let’s not kid ourselves about what really lies behind it.

Well, now all that is gone. Last Friday, Palin endorsed a federal voucher program for all special-education students nationwide, and promised to spearhead the effort to create it if elected. The program would be modeled after special-education vouchers that currently exist in Florida, Ohio, Georgia, Utah, and Arizona. Florida’s groundbreaking program, in existence since 1999, now serves just shy of 20,000 students and has been shown to provide better services to the students who use it and improve services for disabled students remaining in public schools because those schools now have to compete with vouchers.

The federal government already requires states to fund special education, and imposes detailed mandates on how that education is carried out. Requiring schools to offer a voucher option wouldn’t expand federal authority over special education, it would reduce it — because the education of disabled students would finally be controlled by their families, not by a huge and unaccountable special-education bureaucracy set up under federal auspices.

But even though this wouldn’t expand federal authority beyond its current level, it’s still the most radical education reform agenda we’ve ever seen from a national candidate. John McCain says all the right things about vouchers, but so do a lot of people. Palin has committed herself not only to a specific proposal, but to fight for that proposal. Given her record of kowtowing to the unions, this commitment comes completely out of left field (if you’ll pardon the expression).

None of this implies anything about the overall merits of any of these candidates. One can love a candidate overall while hating his or her stand on education, and vice versa. But it seems funny that the Democratic standard-bearer has become a free-market communist on education, while a woman who was, until last week, an unreconstructed ally of the teachers’ unions is running on the GOP ticket and making vouchers a key platform plank.

It’s even funnier that so far, nobody seems to have noticed.

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Greg Forster is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Educational Choice.
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