Election to impact education in nation
Arizona Republic
June 23, 2008


Pat Kossan
The Arizona Republic
Jun. 23, 2008 12:00 AM

Education's moment in the national political sun has come and gone, replaced by a faltering economy and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Yet whoever grabs the country's highest bully pulpit could impact every classroom in America.

Republican Sen. John McCain and Democratic Sen. Barack Obama say they honor the intent of the No Child Left Behind Act: to help poor and minority children catch up and keep up with their wealthier peers. Yet each candidate wants Congress to revamp the law in different ways.

The McCain campaign is previewing his education plan, which won't be complete until fall. Obama has a 15-page K-12 education framework, with a catalogue of new programs. Neither candidate offers specifics about proposed changes to the No Child Left Behind Act.
The No Child Left Behind Act became law in January 2002. It has three basic requirements for states: create grade-level learning objectives, test children on these objectives, and take charge of schools where too many students fail and turn those schools around. States not willing to fall in line risk losing federal money.

Most educators and researchers agree the law has done a good job over the past several years of measuring and tracking academic differences between rich and poor students, often within the same school. Most research shows the law has done little to fix it. It's this next step a new administration will face.

State legislators still hold the bulk of the power to shape school systems. But a new administration will exhort Congress to make the changes it wants next year, when the No Child Left Behind Act is reauthorized, most likely under a new name. A new administration will appoint its own secretary of Education to head the U.S. Department of Education, which controls how education law is implemented.

Here is what could happen in your school down the street depending on who wins the White House in November.

Will students continue taking the annual statewide AIMS test?

Don't expect it to stop anytime soon, no matter who is president. Too much useful, long-term data is provided to scrap such tests, said Jay Greene, a senior fellow with the Manhattan Institute.

"Once we started taking the temperature outside, we are no longer satisfied with reports that it feels warm," he said. "We want to know a number."

Still, the candidates have heard the complaints: The importance placed on test scores has encouraged some schools to teach to the test, and fixation on the test takes time away from art, recess, music and history, especially for children struggling to pass the exam.

Both candidates want to encourage more sophisticated student evaluations than the multiple-choice math and reading ones used by most states, including Arizona. Both talk about using federal grants to jump-start new technology in schools that measures a student's problem-solving skills in more subjects.

Both candidates also talk about avoiding the cost of each state establishing the sophisticated assessments. Obama wants to develop national models that could be replicated in states; McCain wants private organizations to do the same.

Will the state continue to require students to pass the high-school AIMS exam to graduate?

This decision is up to Arizona lawmakers. The No Child Left Behind Act requires states to test their high-school students in math and reading but uses the information to judge the school, not individual students. Arizona is one of 22 states requiring students to pass a standardized test to graduate.

Would the federal government still require the state to take over failing schools?

Arizona has its own law requiring the state to take over failing schools and turn them around. That won't change.

But the No Child Left Behind Act also requires states to take charge of, and turn around, a different set of schools the federal government deems failing. That's where the big changes are likely to happen.

David Berliner, an Arizona State University researcher and author, said both candidates want to hand over these unpopular and expensive decisions to the states. "They will do it in a gradual way, saying we should not have incursions into states, and dump the problem," he said.

No Child Left Behind now requires schools to steadily increase the percentage of students passing state standardized tests until each school has all students performing at grade level by 2014.

That goal is likely to change. Both candidates say a school should get credit if at the end of the year, teachers move students a year ahead academically no matter where they started, even if they're still not at grade level. Fewer schools would likely fail. States, including Arizona, have lobbied for similar changes to the law.

Both candidates want quicker responses to failing schools and would give states more power to decide when to intervene and take over failing schools.

Would life change for teachers in the classroom?

Both candidates lay out plans to make a teaching career more competitive and lucrative and entice teachers to be innovative in the classroom. They both have plans for performance pay and mentoring that would draw and keep teachers in needy schools.

Here's the biggest difference: McCain sees union contracts as a barrier to creating more professional expectations for teachers, mainly because they traditionally base pay on longevity instead of performance. McCain "is going to talk about ways we're going to try to break through that," said Lisa Graham Keegan, McCain's education adviser.

Democrats traditionally rely on teacher unions for a large block of votes. Obama won the endorsement of the National Education Association president after Sen. Hillary Clinton dropped out of the race. He would seek cooperation from unions to make changes.

Are schools likely to receive more federal money?

It would be difficult to find enough money to fix the problems that No Child Left Behind spotlights, especially helping poor students catch up with their wealthier peers.

"You don't need a test for that. What you need is resources to do something about it," Berliner said. "Nobody has that kind of money."

Money has always been a contentious issue between many educators and policymakers. Many school officials say they need more state and federal funding to meet No Child Left Behind's goals and to improve the United States' education achievement. Many politicians argue that money isn't the answer.

The different philosophies are reflected in the candidates. Obama proposes to spend $18 billion a year drawn from delaying some NASA programs, from what is now being spent on the war in Iraq and from inefficiencies in government spending. Among other things, he would expand the school day for struggling students and increase aid to early-childhood learning.

McCain would redistribute the existing federal education budget, with no new money. He wants to provide more grants to help district and charter schools replicate successful programs. He also wants to make it easier to open new charter schools.