The presidential candidates are saying a lot as the Nov. 4 election approaches, with much of the discussion focused on the country's economic downturn. But when it comes to education, many East Valley voters are disappointed about the lack of emphasis on America's schools.
"They're missing the connection between how we educate students, the education system we build and the strength of the economy, whether it's national or state," said Andrew Morrill, vice president of the Arizona Education Association, the state's largest teachers union. "There is a direct relationship between education and an economy we build that is long-term, sustainable. It is an investment in students, an investment in the future."
|Education plan highlights|
|Sen. Barack Obama||Sen. John McCain|
Debbie Lenz, a business executive in Scottsdale who has children in school from the elementary to college, said she wishes more voters were interested in education. That, she said, would help drive more conversation from the candidates.
"I was a little bit disappointed that it took until the end of the third debate for education to come up as a question," she said. "However, I think that the candidates are speaking about what people ask for, and education isn't necessarily on the top of the list. That speaks volumes to me that as a society we don't put education first, perhaps that is why we rank so low in the global picture."
Christine Loschiavo, an educator in the Chandler Unified School District and a mother with a child at Chandler High School, said she likes some ideas she is hearing, but there are still issues that have not been addressed.
"I would like to hear their opinions are preparing our students for the 'Flat World' (from the book by Thomas L. Friedman) we are now living in," Loschiavo said. "What ways do they propose to help our children become proficient and marketable in the global economy? What changes to our secondary curriculum do they support to keep U.S. students competitive with foreign students?"
The education question was presented last week at the third debate to Republican Sen. John McCain and Democratic Sen. Barack Obama by moderator Bob Schieffer, CBS News chief Washington correspondent and host of "Face the Nation." He started with a comment about how America outspends its counterparts on education, but fails to achieve equal results in academics. "We trail most of the countries in the world ... what do you intend to do about it?" he asked.
School choice is one option, both candidates said. McCain and Obama support charter schools, public schools that are run by private operators who contract with the state. McCain has also proposed a plan to help students in rural or poor school districts receive advanced courses online that might not otherwise be available to them.
Arizona has one of the earliest charter school laws on the books. There are 475 charter schools in Arizona with thousands of students enrolled.
Eileen Sigmund, CEO of the Arizona Charter Schools Association, said it's an exciting election for people who work in charter schools because both candidates have said they would like to support more school choice.
And, she said, "Sen. Obama has talked about doubling the funding for charter schools."
Sigmund said the most important issue she is looking at on a federal level is funding for facilities and infrastructure.
Mesa parent Bill Cabano wants to see more attention brought to the education of special-needs students.
"I am happy that Sen. McCain mentioned in his third debate the topic of autism and how Gov. (Sarah) Palin will be a true advocate for children with special needs, because she has first-hand insight. That's something we've never had in office and we desperately need," he said. Cabano has three children in the Mesa Unified School District.
He would also like more attention on education as a whole, with a watchdog group of parents, teachers, business leaders and educators studying what's succeeding in schools in other countries. Those lessons should then be brought to America and applied to the public system here.
"What I wish they were talking about as far as education goes is how they can 'spread the wealth around' and the education shortfall this country is in the middle of," Cabano said, citing the $700 billion bailout of the country's financial system that casts a shadow on "schools in this country that can't get money for the basics."
The candidates split on the school choice option of private school vouchers. McCain points to the success and idea of expanding a scholarship program that exists in the Washington, D.C., schools, but Obama has remarked that he is "open" to the thought of vouchers only if research can show their success.
Both candidates have also addressed the need for quality teachers in all kindergarten-through-12th-grade public schools.
"Unfortunately, between the economy and the troubles in Iraq, education has not been much of an issue in this presidential race," said E.J. Anderson, a school board candidate whose children have gone through the Gilbert Unified School District.
"I am impressed with both presidential candidates' views on recruiting new teachers," Anderson said. "McCain says he will target funding to recruit teachers who graduate in the top 25 percent of their class. Obama wants to offer service scholarships to teachers who are willing to work in a high-need discipline or location. One of the biggest challenges in education is recruiting our best and brightest college graduates for the classroom."
State Rep. David Schapira, D-Tempe, who is working with Obama's campaign in Arizona, said Obama wants to recruit more science and math teachers and boost the science curriculum.
"Countries we're competing with teach science from kindergarten on through the higher-education level," he said, adding that in the United States, science is optional in some elementary and middle school classes or offered on a limited basis.
No Child Left Behind, a federal accountability mandate brought about by the Bush administration, was intended to boost achievement in America's schools. But during the last debate, Obama pointed out that the federal law was never funded properly.
Morrill said federal funding for the mandate has lagged by between $38 billion and $50 billion since schools had to start following No Child Left Behind.
Schapira said Obama wants to see reform to the school punishment aspect of the federal mandate. The way it is now, schools that fail to meet certain guidelines may see their administration removed, he said.
"Punishing failing schools only punishes the students," he said. "One of the biggest problems with No Child Left Behind is the failing school designation that if a school is failing we punish the school; we pull out the administrators. Are you going to be able to attract the best teachers and best administrators to come to a school after that?"
Calls to McCain's campaign representatives were not returned. But McCain's Web site touts the accountability aspects of No Child Left Behind as helping to raise the bar for education in America, though it pushes for more of an individual student emphasis rather than an average of a group's test scores. As it is now, there are benchmarks in different areas - from grade levels to ethnic breakdowns to socioeconomic status - that must be met for a school to reach the federal government's goals.
"I would also like to see more specifics about what the two candidates intend to do about No Child Left Behind," Anderson said. "They both talk in generalities but aren't specific enough about a program that heavily impacts education."
Early childhood education is often pointed to as a key starting point for improving American schools.
Both candidates have targeted Head Start programs as a way to address early childhood education. McCain wants to create Centers for Excellence in Head Start in each state that are models to other Head Start programs, according to his Web site.
Obama plans to increase the funding of Head Start programs, like those in Arizona, Schapira said.
"That's so key. You look at a state like ours where the investment in education is so low, where we spend our money on the back end with the Department of Corrections ... because we don't invest in education," Schapira said.
Scottsdale's Lenz agrees.
"Obama's emphasis on early childhood education as well as more affordable and accessible college education gives me hope," said Lenz, who works for The Little Gym, a program that focuses on young children.