Nation & World

McCain’s, Obama’s education platforms on view at Kennedy School

5 min read

It was standing room only at the Harvard Kennedy School (HKS) as a former governor and a Harvard Law School (HLS) professor took on the issue of education.

The presidential style debate on Sept. 17 pitted former acting governor of Massachusetts Jane Swift IOP ’03, representing Republican nominee John McCain’s education policies, against HLS lecturer of law Stephanie Robinson J.D. ’94 who represented Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama’s education platforms.

The two surrogates squared off on six education topics: early education, charters and school choice, No Child Left Behind (NCLB), state and federal funding, higher education, and teacher quality.

The HKS Education Professional Interest Council and the Harvard Business School Education Leadership Group sponsored the event that was moderated by Harvard Graduate School of Education Dean Kathleen McCartney, Gerald S. Lesser Professor in Early Childhood Development.

Since her turn as the state’s chief executive, Swift has worked for a venture capital firm focused on the education sector and has founded her own consulting group that advises early-stage education companies.

The first governor in the country to give birth in office, the mother of three daughters said she is on pins and needles in the spring.

“The worst part of my entire life every year is the spring. My husband just about wants to move out because I am obsessively compulsive about which teachers my children are going to get for the next year.”

Swift made the comment in the context of explaining how she favored McCain’s plan for teachers and training that would restructure Title II funding, the section of the NCLB legislation that supports the preparation, training, and recruitment of high quality teachers and principals.

“[Title II] has billions of dollars that are supposed to be supporting teacher quality and I don’t think it has been all that effective,” said Swift.

A large part of the solution, she offered, involves greater financial incentives.

McCain’s plan would use Title II funds in part to provide bonuses to recruit teachers from graduates in the top 25 percent of their college class, and to pay top educators who agree to teach in challenging districts, said Swift. In addition, some of the money would increase salaries for math and science teachers, to attract and retain them from other lucrative career options.

Above all, said Swift, McCain’s plan would call for measurements of success.

“We would make sure that all the measurements of who gets the dollars are tied to student achievement.”

In response, Robinson, president and CEO of The Jamestown Project, a think tank that focuses on democracy, laid out a number of Obama’s proposals for training and retaining teachers. Obama’s plan, she said, included teacher-service scholarships, preparing teachers using a method modeled on teaching hospitals for doctors, and linking rewards for teachers to student performance.

“We would agree that that reward should be tied to student performance and student learning, and the most important thing … is that we create these guidelines in collaboration with teachers and not in opposition to teachers.”

The need for better-trained teachers, increased parental involvement and responsibility in their child’s learning, and elimination of the achievement gap were all top goals for both candidates. The differences were harder to discern.

“There are a lot of points in agreement but how do you see the biggest differences between the two education platforms?” asked McCartney.

Swift said they diverged most on funding. Her candidate, she argued, would make sure the dollars already being spent are being spent wisely.

“I do think [McCain] will make some of the difficult decisions about redirecting existing funds to have greater impact instead of what has happened far too often, which is profligate spending.”

Robinson said Obama recognized the need to fix programs by funding them properly, noting the Illinois senator’s plan called for $19 billion worth of support.

“The fact of the matter is if you don’t want to fund Head Start; if you vote against affordability in college; if you vote against increasing the Pell Grant; if you vote against full funding for NCLB; … if the programs that we have — that we put on the books — don’t have funding, there’s nothing that we can do with them.”

In the question-and-answer session, Omar Lopez Ed.M. ’09 wanted to know where each of the candidates stood on sex education. The question recalled recent ads released by the McCain campaign criticizing Obama for backing sex education for kindergarteners. Many argue the ads distort Obama’s record and his support of legislation that supported teaching young students how to recognize the advances of sexual predators.

“Those are decisions that are best left at the local level and with parents, and should not be mandated at the federal level,” said Swift.

Robinson said her candidate supports “age-appropriate sex education.”

Closing remarks revealed further similarities, and the need for a better universal understanding about the critical role of education.

Swift said the country has to stand up and fight for education.

“We haven’t developed a national will to address this problem. … We have got to do something to elevate this issue. For many … the system didn’t work as well and that’s wrong.”

Robinson said a new vision has to take hold.

“We need a new vision for the 21st century, one where we’re not just supporting schools but where we’re spurring new schools, and new innovation; one where we are not just putting money at the problem but are demanding reform,” she said, adding, “ If we want to outperform the world tomorrow, we truly have to out-educate the world today.”