Sunday, November 2, 2008

Why I'm Voting for Barack Obama, Part 2: Education

I am a teacher. I was put on this planet to make a difference in the lives of children, and I'm very good at it. Therefore, I can't help but place a high emphasis on educational policies when I'm deciding who to vote for in any public election. Fortunately for me, there are big differences between the educational policies of Barack Obama and John McCain.

John McCain's Policies

John McCain's educational policy is centered around school choice, a topic that I wrote my undergraduate thesis about. He uses the evidence gathered under No Child Left Behind to argue that many schools are failing, and that we must give the children in those schools vouchers to allow them to choose better schools. It sounds reasonable, but here's the problem: this plan doesn't address the reasons why those schools are failing in the first place, and it doesn't do anything to improve the situation for those schools in the long run.

I've worked in some of those failing schools, and I can tell you why they're failing. My first year of teaching was spent in an urban environment outside Washington, DC. I had no teaching degree or experience, but they were so desperate for teachers that they'd hire anyone with a Bachelor's Degree. I was hired three days before school started and received almost no training. I was paid a daily wage that added up to about $19,000 per year with no benefits. I had twenty-nine fourth graders in my class, several of whom had violent histories and had already been in trouble with the law. We only had 25 desks, and there were only 15 copies of each textbook. At the beginning of the year, only six of my students were reading at a third grade level - the average reading level in my class was first grade. Is it a surprise that my students did not meet state or federal benchmarks on their standardized test that March? Should I, as a teacher, be penalized for that? Isn't there a minimum base line of quality that should be offered in education if we expect it to be successful? And shouldn't that base line of quality be available in every school, rather than giving students vouchers to seek out the schools that are offering it?

Aside from leaving behind the schools that are already failing, vouchers have one other problem: they only work if they are universally applied and if all families take advantage of them. The reality is that the voucher amounts proposed by McCain (and all the other republican school choice proposals I've ever looked at) aren't enough to cover the full costs of tuition at private schools, so they don't really offer poor families a valid choice. They also do not take into account challenging logistic factors like transportation. And they don't adequately inform or educate parents about their choices or the benefits of vouchers. So here's what we'll see: the families that are already involved in their children's education and have adequate resources will pull their children out of underperforming schools and take advantage of the voucher system, while the families who are already struggling the most will stay where they are... and the funding will follow the children who are leaving the underperforming schools... and the gap will grow bigger... and innocent children will continue to fall farther behind as their schools go even further downhill.

I'm not okay with that. I am a stand for ALL the schools in America having the resources they need to succeed and for ALL children receiving an excellent education FOR FREE and in their NEIGHBORHOOD'S PUBLIC SCHOOL. That was the original dream of public education in America... let's not give up on it yet.

John McCain does talk about resources for public schools, but he primarily reallocates money that is currently being spent. So every improvement he suggests in one area (like increased professional development for teachers) will necessarily remove funding from another area where it is currently being used. When bills to increase funding for education have come up in the past, John McCain has consistently voted against them. The only actual increase in funds proposed by the McCain campaign during this election is earmarked for increased access to virtual learning programs. These are basically online courses that have made a difference for some children, but should never be a replacement for quality public schools.

Barack Obama's Policies

There are several pieces to Obama's educational policies that I love. These don't represent his entire set of educational policies, just the parts that convinced me to vote for him this year.

1. Obama proposes increased funding for schools to help them address the gaps in performance that have been identified by testing under No Child Left Behind. I'm not always a fan of increased spending, but education is one area where we need to put our money where our mouth is. Remember: 29 students, 25 desks, 15 textbooks... that just doesn't add up.

2. Obama supports quality after-school programs that will help students in underperforming schools catch up, which gives them a chance to break the cycle that has trapped them for years. After all, how does a fourth grader who's reading at a first grade level have any hope of passing the standardized tests that face him for years to come. He's too far behind to catch up during regular school hours, and the strain placed on teachers takes their time and attention away from the students who are performing at or above grade level, causing them to eventually fall behind, as well.

3. Under his comprehensive "Zero to Five" plan, Obama supports early childhood initiatives that will support children and their families from the very beginning. As a preschool teacher, I know what a difference early childhood education makes for a child. There is a ton of research supporting the idea that critical brain development happens during the first two years of a child's life. So funding elementary schools is not enough if children are showing up at school without the neurological connections necessary to be successful learners. Reaching families earlier and providing them with the education and resources to be better parents from the beginning works... if you want proof, take a look at the Harlem Children's Zone project founded by Geoffrey Canada at

4. Obama wants to make college more affordable, and he's created an innovative plan to do that while also benefitting the rest of the nation. He wants to create an Opportunity Tax Credit worth $4000 in exchange for community service. It's brilliant... similar to Clinton's Americorps program, which led to over 62 million hours of service in 2005 (the year for which statistics are available at Americorps's website).

Please take a minute to think about these eduational policies and the impact they will have on children across America... all children, not just your child.

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