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Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Barack Obama's Unconventional Education Policy

If ever Barack Obama's campaign theme that he rises above politics has a resting place it is his educational policy. Whatever one says about his educational policy, one thing you can't do is place it into any ideological box. In unveiling his education policy, Barack Obama offered a little bit for just about everyone. In a direct challenge to the teacher's union, Obama once again backed the concept of merit pay.

Merit pay is a term describing performance-related pay, most frequently in the context of educational reform. It provides bonuses for workers who perform their jobs better, according to measurable criteria. In the United States, policy makers are divided on whether merit pay should be offered to public school teachers, as is commonly the case in the United Kingdom

Merit pay is a concept that I support as well as long as the standards critieria to measure merit is clearly defined and it can be fairly applied to teachers of varying school districts and student profiles. While that is an easy concept to talk about, it is one that is much more difficult to apply in the real world. The key to this portion of the policy is Obama's ability to define fairly the measure by which merit pay will be done.

For liberal fans, Barack Obama offered up promises of increased federal government spending. From funding to alternative schools to teacher's salaries, Barack Obama clearly sees a larger federal role in education. In fact, Barack Obama's main criticism of No Child Left Behind.

No Child Left Behind is a Bush administration law that set out new standards for public schools, although critics say it is inadequately funded and causes some schools to concentrate on test scores instead of learning.

Obama touched only on funding in his criticism of the law. He also said he favors parents having more choice of schools within the public system, but not the use of vouchers for private schools.

Here, I move away from Obama's philosophy. I believe that education should be primarily a local and state issue. The less that bureaucrats in Washington D.C. direct teachers in Boise, Idaho in the way in which they should direct their classrooms the better, in my opinion. Barack Obama has identified a series of issues in education: teacher's pay and quality, school choice, funding, and he believes that it is the role of the federal government to fix all of these issues.

Finally, Barack Obama addressed the issue of choice as well by promising to double federal funding for charter schools.

Charter schools are elementary or secondary schools in the United States that receive public money but have been freed from some of the rules, regulations, and statutes that apply to other public schools in exchange for some type of accountability for producing certain results, which are set forth in each school's charter.[1]

Charter schools do not charge tuition and frequently have lottery based admissions. They therefore provide an alternative to public schools. Some charter schools provide a curriculum that specializes in a certain field-- e.g. arts, mathematics, etc. Others simply seek to provide a better and more efficient general education than nearby public schools.Some charter schools are founded by teachers, parents, or activists who feel restricted by traditional public schools.[2] State-run charters (schools not affiliated with local school districts) are often established by non-profit groups, universities, and some government entities.[3] Additionally, school districts sometimes permit corporations to open chains of for-profit charter schools.

For full disclosure, I am a huge fan of charter schools primarily because I have volunteered at one for several years and have been impressed by the manner in which it operates. That said, I am in favor of school choice rather than the government favoring one concept of schooling over another. While I believe that helping the growth of charter schools will have a positive impact on education, I am not so comfortable with the federal government isolating one type of school and favoring it. Beyond that, an added $200 million dollars works out to $4 million dollars per state, if it is distributed equally. That sort of funding would add maybe one extra charter school per state. To me, this added funding is nothing more than a trojan horse and much more a campaign slogan than a policy that will actually do anything substantive to increase school choice.

While I find plenty to criticize in Obama's educational policy, it is on this policy that I see in Obama a politician that is really trying to live up to the idea that he will do what works. Unlike much of his other policy positions, on education he really is examining each issue in a manner to formulate the right policy. While he continues to stick to his liberal orthodoxy that the federal government is always the best source of change, he also recognizes the real life problems of education (like incompetent teachers on tenure). I think that on the issue of education Barack Obama has a real chance to contribute in a positive manner, whether as President or otherwise.

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