John McCain addressed the NAACP today, and focused his comments on public education. He mentioned Barack Obama’s earlier dismissal of school vouchers:
“All of that went over well with the teachers union, but where does it leave families and their children who are stuck in failing schools?” the Arizona senator asked. “No entrenched bureaucracy or union should deny parents that choice and children that opportunity.”
[Obama] believes that the way to fix our schools isn’t by draining their limited resources. Obama believes that the single most important factor in our children’s education is having an excellent teacher.
It seems that the education policy positions for this election are staked out. Obama is in favor of reforming the public schools, with an emphasis on improving teacher quality, while McCain wants to encourage public schools to improve through competition with private schools. The voucher issue is one that has come in and out of the spotlight over the years, one that is attractive to the right because vouchers embody free choice and they can have the effect of lessening the dependence of the public on the government.
From Breakthrough’s perspective, this is a complicated issue. School choice is at the core of what we do for our students and some of them do go into private schools, if that is the best option. At the same time, we know that teacher quality and challenging curriculum are more central to the problems in education than the fact that schools are publicly funded in the first place.
There is an added wrinkle here, and one that Breakthrough knows deeply from our 3 decades in this fight: admission to a great school is only a small part of the equation. Students that traditionally excel at wonderful high schools are conditioned for that experience for years in advance by the wonderful middle and elementary schools they attended. Far too many brilliant, underserved kids get that scholarship to an elite independent school, only to find that they are, despite their brains, still a couple of years behind their peers who have been getting great curriculum since 2nd grade. That’s why the few years that we have them before high school are so intense and rigorous. I’m personally doubtful that a government investment in admission to private schools is going to do much to close the gap.