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The Next Education President?

By Matt Bolch | August 2007

The six summer front-runners for Election '08 share their plans for education. Eduwonk.com blogger and political expert Andrew Rotherham rates and reviews their positions and chances for victory. Who merits your vote?

Barack Obama

Agenda: The first-term senator has introduced three pieces of legislation that address education: a grant program to support summer learning opportunities for disadvantaged children; another for 20 districts to develop innovative education plans; and the HOPE Act, which would make college more affordable by increasing the maximum Pell Grant.

Rotherham: Look for more from Obama as the campaign unfolds. He is perhaps best positioned to use the education issue to reinforce his broader campaign message, and he is uniquely positioned to discuss some of the achievement-gap issues that are dominating the national discussion. But while the ideas he has proposed so far have a lot of merit, the kinds of ideas that animate a presidential campaign have to be bigger.

Hilary Clinton

Agenda: Clinton proposes reforming the No Child Left Behind Act, saying that the promise of more resources in exchange for greater accountability has not been kept. She also advocates increasing access to high-quality early education by creating Early Head Start, and attracting and supporting more outstanding principals and administrators, paying them like the professionals they are.

Rotherham: People forget Clinton’s record as a reformer in Arkansas. She knows this issue well. Her big proposal so far—expanding access to Pre-K education—carries a hefty price tag, so she’s also going to show voters she’s tough on accountability and efficiency. Her husband’s formula of demanding more from schools while also investing more in them was popular with voters, but it works politically only if you do both.

John Edwards

Agenda: Edwards is pushing an initiative that would pay for one year of public-college tuition, fees, and books for more than 2 million students. For Title I high schools, Edwards would hire a counselor to help students choose courses and navigate the admissions and financial aid processes.

Rotherham: Considering Edwards’s “two Americas” message, it’s surprising that he is not more aggressively putting forward proposals to reform our widely unequal public schools.

Mitt Romney

Agenda: Romney outlined his plans in an April 2006 opinion piece in the Washington Times. The six-pronged agenda includes higher pay for teaching in specialty fields, more administrator authority to hire and fire without regard to seniority, continued standardized testing, school choice, greater parental involvement (including mandatory two-day parental preparation courses for the lowest-performing schools), greater academic resources (such as Advanced Placement in every high school), and one-to-one laptop programs in middle and high schools. His take on bilingiual education: In an “Ask Mitt Anything” town-hall video that appears on his Web site, Romney explains to a young girl that to be successful in America, children need to speak the language of America: English.

Rotherham: Romney showed some creativity on education in Massachusetts, but he’s so far managed to avoid such creativity in his campaign. There is a spot on the Republican side for a pragmatic reformer, and Romney could fill that role—but that’s going to take concrete ideas, not just op-eds.

John McCain

Agenda: McCain has not fleshed out any education initiatives for the 2008 presidential campaign on his Web site, and press officials did not return repeated calls for comment, but he is a supporter of school vouchers. At a Wall Street Journal executive conference, McCain mentioned Cisco CEO John Chambers, Fed Ex CEO Fred Smith, and Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer as possible cabinet members. Which departments would the business titans lead? Not the DOE. “I’m not sure I dislike anyone in this room enough” for that post, he said.

Rotherham: McCain does education like the Red Sox win World Series, which is to say episodically. But he’ll need more than a school voucher proposal to convince voters that he cares about this issue. Education will hardly be the thing that costs him the White House, but some centrist and reform-oriented ideas could help him win over undecided voters.

Rudy Giuliani

Agenda: Giuliani’s “12 Commitments to the American People” includes the statement: “I will provide access to a quality education to every child in America by giving real school choice to parents.” His presidential candidacy site also states his belief that school choice “is one of the great civil rights issues of our time.”

Rotherham:
To win the White House, Giuliani will need to convince voters he’s not as vicious as he sometimes seems. Just as President Bush used education to signal to voters that he wasn’t a Gingrich-style Republican in 2000, Giuliani could use the issue to show a different side of his persona. At the same time, he could show parents that his toughness is a virtue in terms of fighting for their kids. But not much out of him on education thus far in the campaign.

About the Author

Matt Bolch, based in Atlanta, specializes in business and technology.

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