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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

People used to complain that the two parties are Tweedledee and Tweedledum. But this year nobody can say the election doesn’t offer stark alternatives. The problem is keeping track of who’s offering which alternative, as the candidates continually flip-flop.

Take education, for example. Suppose I told you Candidate A has supported rigorous academic standards, has stood up to the teachers’ unions — even been booed by them at their convention — and proclaimed the free-market principles that schools should compete for students and better teachers should get higher salaries. On the other hand, Candidate B says that competition hurts schools, that kids should be taught a radical left-wing civics curriculum, that we should throw more money at teachers’ unions — excuse me, at schools — and that rigorous academic standards should be replaced with the unions’ old lower-the-bar favorite, “portfolio assessment.”

Candidate A is Barack Obama. So is Candidate B.

Meanwhile, Candidate C has made an alliance with the teachers’ unions, opposed school choice, thrown money at the unions — excuse me, at schools — and even helped undermine a badly needed reform of bloated union pensions. On the other hand, Candidate D has broken with the teachers’ unions, demanded that schools should have to compete for students, and endorsed the most radical federal education reform agenda ever proposed by a national candidate, including a national school choice program for all disabled students.

Candidate C is Sarah Palin. So is Candidate D.

Obama has embraced education-reform principles never before seen at this level in the Democratic party. He not only supports charter schools, he justifies his support by arguing that competition arising from parental choice improves schools. In the last presidential debate, he said: “I doubled the number of charter schools in Illinois despite some reservations from teachers’ unions. I think it’s important to foster competition inside the public schools.” Even most Republican charter school supporters don’t appeal so directly to free-market principles.

This seems to have slipped by largely unnoticed even by the world of education wonks, but it’s a big deal. And it will be a big deal even if Obama is just saying what he needs to say to get elected and never again lifts a finger for the cause of education reform.

For decades, the unions have argued that the whole idea of bringing competition to education is crazy right-wing ideology. Now we can respond by asking if Barack Obama is a crazy, right-wing ideologue.

That’s not going to end the debate over competition in education. But it’s going to help.

Obama also supports reform on the crucial issue of differential pay. In every profession except education, your pay depends on what kind of assignment you take on and how well you perform. One of the main dysfunctions in the current system is that teachers are paid on a factory-worker scale where they don’t make more for working in tougher school assignments (guaranteeing that teachers flee those schools) or for performing better (guaranteeing that the profession will not attract top performers). When Obama mentioned his support for differential pay while accepting the endorsement of the National Education Association, the union actually booed him.

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.

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