The Presidential Race: Another Lost Opportunity for Education Reform?

September 1, 2008

For release Sept. 3 and thereafter (572 words)

by Dr. Jeff Abbott

Many Americans believe the nation’s public education system is broken and needs repair. John McCain joins the chorus of critics by announcing “the deplorable status of preparation for our children . . .” and believes that public schools are “safe havens for the uninspired and unaccountable.” Barack Obama also criticizes public education by stating “I don’t want to send another generation of American children to failing schools.”

What the two presidential candidates apparently fail to understand is that it is the governance system of public education that is broken. The responsibility does not sit on the laps of hardworking teachers and principals. Rather, it lies squarely with state legislatures and the U.S. Congress. The public schools will continue to suffer mediocrity until state and federal policymakers understand that American public education is over-regulated and over-politicized.

Will either presidential candidate deregulate and depoliticize public education in America? The answer can be found in each candidate’s policy statements on their websites.

McCain makes no mention of depoliticizing public schools. Nor is there much hope under a McCain administration that public education will be significantly deregulated. His introduction to his policy statement claims that his education policy “removes needless bureaucracy. . . .”

However, when his education policy is examined, there is no mention as to how his policy removes needless bureaucracy. McCain proposes that providers of tutoring services can “bypass the local bureaucracy” and receive direct federal certification. The “local bureaucracy” McCain refers to is the local school board. Thus his idea of removing needless bureaucracy is to remove a decision from local officials and give it to the federal government.

McCain argues for empowerment of teachers and principals. However, he fails to describe how he would empower teachers. His only mention of empowerment of principals is his desire to give them greater control over school spending.

Obama argues its time for “rethinking the factory model” and encourages schools “to organize themselves for greater success. . . .”  However, no mention is made of deregulating or depoliticizing the nation’s public schools. Obama’s approach to public education reform is to develop new federal government programs and expand others. This will require even more regulation of public schools by the federal government.

Obama proposes creating 17 new federal initiatives, expanding 10 current federal programs and reallocating funds of one federal program. McCain proposes two new federal programs, expansion of one current federal program and reallocation of funds from four federal programs. McCain’s increased spending would be $507 million. Obama grants that his increased spending on his public education initiatives will amount to $18 billion per year, more than 35 times greater than McCain’s.
Thus, voters are left with the choice of electing a president who would prefer not to do much of anything for public education and a free-spending president who believes schools need more federal programs and federal spending.

Both candi>dates overlook a simple formula for improving public schooling: (teacher and principal authority) + (teacher and principal accountability) = (excellent schools).

Until the next president realizes that teachers and principals are the key to education improvement, and that they must have the right to exercise their professional judgment in a deregulated and depoliticized environment, America’s public school performance will continue to lag.

And until the next president realizes that you can’t spend or regulate the public schools into excellence, another generation of students will suffer through a failing system.

Dr. Jeff H. Abbott, Ph.D., J.D., an adjunct scholar of the Indiana Policy Review Foundation, teaches in the education department at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne. Contact him at


Leave a Reply