After months of sentence parsing minutiae and rounds of fervent media coverage of every utterance by the candidates, it's looking like someone in this campaign is finally going to talk about education - arguably the most important domestic issue we face today. Too bad it's the Republican who brought it up.
Sunday's New York Daily News featured an op-ed commentary from John McCain explaining his plan for education. Unsurprisingly, he's in favor of good schools and against bad schools. Given how often he's been changing positions in this campaign, it's not a given that things will stay that way, but it's where we are now. Anyway, give him credit for at least taking on the issue.
Pledging to be on the side of "major reform" of the education system, McCain offers the standard Republican Party line on education. Vouchers, more choice, accountability, and reducing the influence of the teachers' unions. Again, give him credit for being willing to take on the issue, but this is not the way to go about it.
I've written over and over again on this page about my deep reservations regarding vouchers and school choice models. In addition to weakening the foundations of public education (themselves the foundations of an integrated democracy) they simply don't work. Study after study has demonstrated no significant benefit to school choice or voucher programs. Sure, everyone can cite a story about some poor kid whose life was turned around, but ultimately we have to be bound by evdence, not anecdotes. And the evidence is not on the side of school vouchers.
Also, McCain's line "school choice for all who want it" simply isn't going to be workable. We simply don't have enough good schools to house all the kids who would choose to be leaving bad schools. If we had enough good schools we wouldn't have kids trying to leave their schools. They'd already be at the good schools.
McCain also writes that, "We will award bonuses as well to our highest-achieving teachers. And instead of measuring teacher achievement by conformity to process, we will measure it by the success of their students." Presumably this means that we'll be measuring teacher achievement by conformity to the testing process. I've said this over and over again: Accountability is not an educational philosophy! Testing does not help kids learn! Tests measure, they don't teach.
The larger truth that McCain misses in addressing education reform is that it can't be focused entirely on the schools. Yes, schools need to be a large part of the equation, but that alone isn't enough. As David Brooks wrote just last week, family environments have a huge impact on educational achievement. That's why Obama's plans for increased early education and after school program funding (dismissed early on by McCain) are so essential.
McCain is talking about the right issue, he's just addressing it in the wrong way. Hopefully he's opened the door and the issue actually becomes an issue in this campaign.