Politics & Policy

No Chance

Barack Obama & education.

When asked to specify his bipartisan bonafides, to which he often alludes, Sen. Barack Obama likes to talk about education. He’ll tell you, for instance, that he took a big risk by supporting merit pay for teachers even though their unions, those stalwart allies of Democratic politicians and the status quo, mostly abhor it.

Risky business? Not quite. In supporting teacher merit-pay, Obama isn’t out of step with the Democratic party. Lots of left-leaning policymakers and policy wonks think, sensibly, that the best teachers should make the most money. The Center for American Progress, a mainstream liberal think tank, believes it. So does Washington, D.C., Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee (a Democrat), who is currently embroiled in testy negotiations with the city’s teachers’ union over her plan to institute a merit-pay program.

But Tuesday, as our country’s future trundled back to school, Obama again attempted to harness education’s bipartisan potentialities. And so he gave a speech about schools. Don’t be fooled by its trappings and frequent invocation of innovation; at its core, nothing about Obama’s talk was politically risky, truly innovative, or especially bipartisan. His views on education are just, plain liberal: More big government.

After opening with obligatory paeans to the importance of knowledge and learning, Obama impugned the education record of his opponent, Sen/ John McCain, who has served in Congress for 26 years.

“And in those three [sic] decades,” said Obama, “he has not done one thing to truly improve the quality of public education in our country. Not one real proposal or law or initiative. Nothing.” The Illinois senator continued: “Instead, he marched with the ideologues in his party in opposing efforts to hire more teachers, and expand Head Start, and make college more affordable.”

Or Obama might have put it this way: “When it comes to education, John McCain believes in a modification of Hippocratic Oath — the federal government shall do no harm — and he has opposed much cumbersome, burgeoning, school-related meddling that I promise to both support and create.”

Obama’s first criticism, that McCain failed to bolster the hiring of more teachers, tells us much about both candidates. In 2001, McCain voted against an amendment that would have allocated billions of dollars to school districts but would have prescribed all the money specifically for adding teachers (100,000 new teachers, to be exact). Not only did McCain’s vote reject this indiscriminate hiring, but it also took a smart stand against overweening federal interference in classroom management. Sen/ Bill Frist aptly described why Republicans opposed the amendment, which didn’t pass: “What we want to do is give local school districts the ability to spend money how they see fit.”

Obama carps about McCain’s vote but wasn’t around to offer his own recorded opinion on the matter. Someone should therefore ask the Illinois senator how he would have voted had he held his current position in 2001, and whether he thinks the U.S. Congress is more capable of determining the staffing needs of school districts than are districts themselves.

Someone should also ask Obama if he thinks the nation really needs 100,000 new teachers. Because in fact, the United States has no shortage of teachers whatsoever. Longtime education scholar (and my boss) Chester E. Finn Jr. wrote in 2005, “Over the past half-century, the number of pupils in U.S. schools grew by about 50% while the number of teachers nearly tripled.” School spending has also jumped three-fold during that time; scores on standardized tests, of course, have not. Class sizes shrink, but to what end?

Sharp observers can understand that, contrary to Obama’s insinuations, the country has too many teachers and not too few. More specifically, it has too many mediocre and shoddy teachers. A sound approach would be to employ fewer educators, better ones, and pay them lots more. Teachers’ unions hear that and howl, of course, because fewer teachers means fewer union-dues-paying members and less political influence. And so Obama pretends (in deference to the unions, one suspects) that schools need more educators when they don’t.

Obama’s speech Tuesday contained its hopeful glimmers. He promised support for well-run charter schools, reiterated his endorsement of merit pay, and noted that awful teachers shouldn’t remain in classrooms. For young, savvy, Democratic politicians such as Obama, though, such stances are now quite unexceptional. Even the intransigent National Education Association, the nation’s largest teachers’ union, has begun to make peace with charter schools.

And those glimmers, those flecks of sense, occurred but occasionally in an inky talk that promised more big-government education programs (e.g., Washington will issue online, parent-friendly report cards for every American student) and never specified how to remedy problems with the big-government programs we already have. The senator seemed incapable of acknowledging, too, that a vibrant menu of educational choices would go a long way toward improving schools. He seemed similarly incapable of acknowledging the limits of what Washington can do well — or do at all.

Liam Julian is a research fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution.


The Latest