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Printed from the Charlotte Observer - www.CharlotteObserver.com
Posted: Friday, Sep. 05, 2008

Candidates, speak up about education

Published in: Fannie Flono

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Some political operatives this week declared the presidential election will be determined by personalities, not issues. We, the American people, can prove them wrong. And on one issue close to my heart – education – we must.

This is no time for citizens to be patsies for propaganda – from either major party, or from the minor ones. This nation faces huge challenges on many fronts. Decisions on these issues, made by the next administration, will greatly affect the quality of our lives.

We shouldn't lose sight of that. But, sadly, on education needs, we already have. The issue was greatly discussed in past presidential elections but is getting mostly footnote attention this year.

Accessible and good

That should disturb us as voters. Most of the other big issues facing the nation have tangible links to how well we educate our citizenry – and whether we make a good education accessible to all of them.

And, as a country, we are far from educating many of our children well, and from even giving all access to a good education. Education Trust, a research and advocacy group, took note of America's standing in a report with this dismaying fact: “Today's young people,” it said, “are NOT better educated than their parents, a sad position we hold in common with only one other developed country.”

The home states of the presidential candidates and their running mates are no exception to the challenges.

In GOP candidate John McCain's Arizona, average scores on the National Assessment of Education Progress were below the national average for reading and math in 2007 (220 and 261 for fourth and 8th graders respectively in reading, and 239 and 280 respectively for math). Arizona students scored 210 and 255 on reading, and 232 and 276 on math.

In Sarah Palin's Alaska, students scored 214 and 259 on reading, and 237 and 283 on math.

In candidate Barack Obama's Illinois, 4th graders scored 237 and 8th graders 280 on math; on reading, scores were 219 and 263 respectively.

Students in Joe Biden's Delaware did best, topping the national average for all grades. Delaware students scored 242 and 283 on math; on reading, average scores were 225 and 265.

But all four had less than 50 percent of students deemed proficient. Most scored at the basic level. Delaware did best with 40 percent proficient in math in 4th grade, and from 31 to 34 percent proficient elsewhere.

States with smaller student populations, and less diversity, tend to do better on national tests. Delaware and Alaska, though, are similarly situated. In 2007, Alaska had 133,288 enrolled students. Delaware had 120,937. Alaska's student population was 57.7 percent white and 33.8 percent low-income. Delaware's was 55.1 percent white and 44.6 percent low-income.

The two states even have similar per-pupil expenditures – $11,801 in Delaware and $11,503 in Alaska. Delaware students come out ahead though. Given that Palin is Alaska's governor, I'd especially like to hear her talk about education, about what she's doing in her home state on the issue, and what she'd do nationally.

I'd also like to hear McCain and Obama give more details – or start giving some – on education issues. Here's how their stands were summed up in the Observer:

“McCain: Favors parental choice, including vouchers for private schools when approved by local officials. More money for community college education.

“Obama: An $18 billion plan that would encourage, but not mandate, universal prekindergarten. Teacher pay raises tied to, though not based solely on, test scores. An overhaul of No Child Left Behind law to better measure student progress, make room for subjects like music and art and be less punitive toward failing schools. A tax credit to pay up to $4,000 of college costs for students who perform 100 hours of community service a year. Obama would pay for his plan by ending corporate tax deductions for CEO pay and delaying NASA missions.”

Demand more details, talk

As citizens, we must demand more discussion and details about what the candidates plan to do. We must educate ourselves too. Go the candidates' Web sites: www.barackobama.com/issues/education/ and www.johnmccain.com/Informing/issues.

This election should not be decided on personalities. But it's up to us to make sure it won't be.

Fannie Flono is an Observer associate editor. Reach her by e-mail her at fflono@charlotteobserver.com.

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