Friday, October 31, 2008

Education: Obama says schools need more money, McCain wants more accountability

Though education has not figured prominently in the campaign, John McCain and Barack Obama have their proposals. Each falls squarely within their respective party's established political framework: Boiled down, Mr. Obama believes that schools require more resources and federal support, while Mr. McCain wants to introduce to the education system more choice and accountability.

School choice. Mr. McCain would pursue education reforms that institute equality of choice in the K-12 system. He would allow parents whose kids are locked into failing public schools to opt out, whether in favor of another public school, a charter school or through voucher or scholarship programs for private options. Parents, he believes, ought to have more control over their education dollars. Teachers' unions and school administrators find none of this amenable. Mr. McCain supports merit pay for teachers and would establish a bonus program for high-performing educators, as well as devote more funds toward attracting successful college graduates into the field. He would also give principals more control over their schools, including spending decisions, instead of district school boards.

Teachers. Mr. Obama prefers that students stay within the current system, though he acknowledges its many problems. A mainstay of his campaign is his promise to completely underwrite training costs in teacher preparation. He also supports continuing education and mentoring programs for current teachers. So that there is a "guarantee of quality," he backs mandatory professional accrediting for educators and proposes a "career ladder initiative" to reform teacher compensation and tenure to recognize expertise. During a recent speech to the American Federation of Teachers, Mr. Obama disparaged "tired rhetoric about vouchers and school choice."

No Child Left Behind. The 2001 legislation that introduced national performance standards and accountability to the schools remains a political live wire, particularly in regard to weak enforcement by the Department of Education. Mr. McCain has offered few specific reforms but generally supports the law's broad contours as a good start. Many of Mr. Obama's reform ideas would result in essentially suspending the law's accountability provisions, though not the Washington funding, which he says he would increase.

Early childhood education. Mr. Obama supports a universal preschool policy and says that his "zero-to-five" early education agenda "begins at birth." He would increase federal outlays for universal preschool education by $10 billion annually, handing the states block grants devoted to infants and toddlers. Mr. Obama also wants to expand eligibility for Head Start, the four-decade-old federal preschool program for low-income kids. Mr. McCain believes there is already a profusion of federal programs devoted to early child care and preschool, including Head Start and its many offshoots. He would try to better coordinate the programs and focus them on outcomes to reduce waste. To reward success, Mr. McCain wants to establish "centers of excellence," which would receive more Head Start funding and serve as models for underperforming institutions.

Public service. Though both candidates call on listeners to devote themselves to "causes greater than self-interest," Mr. Obama would see to it that they do, with a plan for "universal voluntary citizen service." In addition to doubling the size of the Peace Corps, he would create a Classroom Corps, a Health Corps, a Homeland Security Corps and a Clean Energy Corps, plus a Green Jobs Corps. Mr. Obama proposes a fully refundable tax credit of $4,000 for college students who complete 100 hours of community service a year ($40 an hour). He would make federal education aid conditional on high schools requiring students to perform 50 hours of service a year.

Higher education. Mr. Obama suggests expanding federal student aid programs, including Pell Grants, and says he will streamline college tax benefits, which are so complicated many students and families don't end up claiming them. Mr. McCain likes the tax simplification part. He also believes that earmarks have compromised the integrity of government-financed research at the nation's universities and promises to eliminate them (the earmarks, not the universities).



The University and College Union (UCU) is facing a court threat if it doesn't retract its decision to encourage members to question the ethics of contacts with universities in Israel. A group of as yet anonymous litigants, who are UCU members, are demanding repayment of any union funds spent on carrying out a national conference resolution which asked academics to consider the moral and political implications of their links with Israeli institutions. Via their solicitors, Mishcon de Reya, the litigants warn UCU that they will sue its four trustees individually for recovery of the money.

A year ago UCU accepted legal advice that its 2007 national conference motion for an academic boycott of Israel was unlawful and could not be implemented. At this year's conference in May, lecturers voted overwhelmingly to call on colleagues to "consider the moral and political implications of educational links with Israeli institutions, and to discuss the occupation with individuals and institutions concerned, including Israeli colleagues with whom they are collaborating".

Their general secretary, Sally Hunt, had warned delegates before the debate that UCU would need to take legal advice on what steps it could take to carry out the motion. The motion sparked off a heated debate and a succession of resignations from UCU members.

In a House of Lords debate, the former independent adjudicator for higher education, Baroness Deech, called on universities to derecognise the union. "These efforts to boycott, or to come as close as possible to a boycott, are contrary to race relations legislation and ultra vires the powers of the union," Deech said. "The UCU has created an atmosphere hostile to Jewish academics and to quality academic research and freedom in this country," Deech added.

On September 26, Mishcon de Reya wrote to Hunt warning her that unless UCU accepted within 14 days that the latest conference resolution was "ultra vires" - beyond its powers - a group of unnamed members would take it to court. As UCU members, its clients were entitled to sue the union and its trustees - Professor Neil Macfarlane, Fawzi Ibrahim, Dr Dennis Wright and Paul Russell - to force it to declare the resolution null and void, the letter said. And they would sue the trustees for the repayment of any money spent on implementing the resolution. If legal action is taken, the union members taking it will be identified, their solicitors say. The 14-day deadline for UCU to reply passed on Friday.


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