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ELECTION-EDUCATION Sep-15-2008 (1,000 words) With logo posted Aug. 15 and photo posted Sept. 15. xxxn

Campaign '08: Where are presidential candidates on education issues?

By Carol Zimmermann
Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- Even though the economy and the war in Iraq often take the front seat in presidential campaign discussions, occasionally the two major parties' candidates get the chance to outline their plans for the preschool-to-college set.

Their educational agendas, emerging in speeches, party platforms and the candidates' campaign Web sites, reveal similarities and plenty of differences. And while they tend to speak primarily of public schools, Catholic school officials are paying attention to their promises, looking for what a future administration may emphasize.

Republican Sen. John McCain and Democratic Sen. Barack Obama agree on the importance of having qualified teachers in the classroom and the need to make college tuition more affordable. They disagree on school choice, how to improve teacher quality and how to fund public education.

In tackling educational reform, they plan to keep in place, although in a changed form, the No Child Left Behind Act, which was enacted in 2002 and is currently up for reauthorization. The candidates see weaknesses in the legislation requiring states to hold schools and districts accountable for improving student achievement, but they propose different ways to fix it.

Marie Powell, executive director of the U.S. bishops' Office of Catholic Education, told Catholic News Service she will be closely following the reauthorization, which was originally slated for this year.

She said she realizes the reauthorization won't be the top priority of a new administration, but she hopes that when it resurfaces before Congress, it will be "restored to its original purpose of equitability," meaning it should benefit students and teachers from public and private schools and not bar those in private schools from getting the services they need.

Though both candidates say they would make changes to the No Child Left Behind legislation, they have not released specific plans. Although McCain voted for the law he has been critical of its effectiveness. One change he proposes would make it easier for students in failing schools to receive tutoring after school through private companies.

Obama, who also has been critical of the legislation, has described it as ineffective and inadequately funded. He faults it for using what he says are poorly designed tests to measure failing schools and said the schools that need improvement should get support, not the punishment currently set up by the law, which includes firing teachers and principals, closing schools or turning them over to a private firm, a charter operator or the state.

While educators across the country will be looking to see a new direction, if any, for No Child Left Behind, Catholic school officials also are keeping a keen eye on school-choice initiatives -- an issue on which the candidates disagree. McCain has stated his support for school choice, but critics say he has failed to outline specifics of what he would do other than expand federally funded opportunity scholarships in Washington for low-income students.

The Washington scholarship program, which provides vouchers to almost 2,000 students, many of whom attend Catholic schools, is in its final year and has an uncertain future unless it is reauthorized by Congress.

Obama favors limited school choice that gives students the option of attending a charter school. During a Sept. 9 speech at a public school in Ohio he said he would double the funding for charter schools to $400 million a year.

Charter schools, publicly funded but privately operated, have been unpopular with teachers unions who say these schools take funds and students from public schools. Although national teachers unions have endorsed Obama, he has split with them on this issue and on his proposal of incentive payment for successful teachers, something McCain similarly endorses.

In their 2007 document, "Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship: A Call to Political Responsibility," the U.S. bishops emphasize that parents should be able to choose the best education for their children and that the government, through tax credits and scholarships, "should help provide resources for parents, especially those of modest means."

Sister Dale McDonald, a Sister of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary and the director of public policy and educational research for the National Catholic Educational Association, said her office is "not hoping for the (next) president to wave a magic wand" when it comes to school-choice initiatives. In previous years, she said, candidates "promised school choice and it never came to be."

She is slightly more optimistic about educational tax credits where individuals and corporations can donate funds to be used for school tuition or other educational expenses. But with the current state of the economy, she told CNS she also fears tax credits are "not shining brightly on the horizon."

In their higher education proposals, the candidates want to help students better afford college tuition, but they offer different ways to that end. Obama has proposed issuing a tax credit to offset $4,000 in college tuition in exchange for 100 hours of community service. He has proposed overhauling the federal student loan program and expanding the Peace Corps, AmeriCorps and other national service programs.

McCain supports an increase in Pell grants -- federal scholarships based on family need -- and he also backs expanding low-interest college loans for middle-class families.

Sister McDonald noted that although "education is a small part of both parties' platforms" Catholic school officials want to be "on the radar screen" during the election year. That's why the NCEA submitted statements to the national platform committees of both parties stating their support for school choice and educational reform that helps all students and teachers.

"We are an important part of American education and we want fair treatment for our students and acknowledgement of what we do," said Sister McDonald, stressing the work Catholic schools do with lower-income and non-Catholic students.

Powell also said Catholic school officials will continue to promote themselves to political leaders as a reminder of everything that Catholic schools do.

"We're not just a fringe group," she added.


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