Where is education in the race for the White House?

05 May 2008 BBc News Online

Schools lose in White House race

By Mike Baker
Mike Baker

The next big stage in the marathon race for the Democrats' Presidential nomination is next week's primary in North Carolina.

Reading the candidates' websites, you might expect education to feature as a top issue.

Both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama have strong views on the need for urgent education reform.


But you'll be lucky to hear much about it anywhere in the media coverage or televised debates of the Democrat contest.

I've just returned from the US, where I was visiting one of the country's top public universities, the University of Virginia, neighbouring North Carolina.

I attended a meeting of the university's governing body, the Board of Visitors, in the impressive Rotunda building - the centrepiece of the campus designed by the university's founder, Thomas Jefferson.

Jefferson was an American president who put the highest value on education.

'Poor backgrounds'


Indeed, like Britain's former Prime Minister Harold Wilson, who claimed the creation of the Open University as his proudest achievement, Jefferson was so proud of his new university at Charlottesville that he asked for it to be recorded as one of the few achievements listed on his gravestone.

Much of the Board of Visitors' meeting was taken up with reports on fund-raising activities.

The university is not poor by British standards, but funding from tax dollars represents a declining proportion of its income.

That is one concern in American higher education.

Another is the difficulty of achieving diverse student bodies, not only in terms of ethnicity but also in terms of family income.

The University of Virginia's board was studying the latest statistics for undergraduate admission.

Less than 7% come from low-income families. Even with generous scholarship packages, it is proving hard to attract more students from poor backgrounds.

Parents feel obliged to take out college savings plans when their children are born

Tuition fees at the University of Virginia are much lower than at private universities like Harvard or Yale, but they still amount to almost $9,000 a year for those living in the state and almost $28,000 for everyone else.

As economic times get tough, Americans are worried about the soaring cost of university education. College fees have risen nearly 40% in five years.

Amongst students and parents there is almost constant talk about the difficulty of meeting these costs.

A college education used to be affordable. Now the average American graduate leaves college with close to $20,000 in debt, and that is despite the fact that it is usual for students to take paid work while at college.

Parents feel obliged to take out college savings plans when their children are born.

The size of those savings plans often limits the choice of universities. The most expensive, currently George Washington University, will charge over $40,000 in tuition fees alone next year.

There are just as many concerns about elementary and high school issues, or K -12 education (kindergarten to 12th grade) as the Americans call it.

'Locked out'

There is a widespread concern that the public school system, which unlike that in the UK means those schools that do not charge fees, is not doing as well as it should.

High School drop-out rates are very high, especially in the big cities.

In the latest international school achievement study (PISA), the scores of 15 year-olds in the USA in both science and maths were well below the average for all OECD countries - a shocking statistic for the world's most advanced economy.

So when I settled down to watch the latest televised debate between Clinton and Obama I thought, perhaps naively, that education was bound to figure prominently.

After all, there are some crucial debates going on: over student loans, voucher schemes to improve parental choice, and the spread of publicly funded but independent charter schools, which resemble our city Academies.

There is also a critical debate over the federal No Child Left Behind legislation that, like recent policy in the UK, attempts to raise standards in the basics through tougher accountability on schools, school boards, and states by means of standardised pupil tests.

'Rallying cry'

But it wasn't to be. Forty minutes in and the candidates' inquisitors were still asking them about alleged gaffes and personality traits.

After almost an hour's "debate", they finally reached some policy issues: Iraq, taxation, social security, gun control, and then gas prices.

Big issues, certainly, but did the journalists who were leading the questioning think the American voters had no interest in education?

Finally, when it seemed neither candidate would get a chance to say the word "school" or "college", Obama managed to turn a question about affirmative action into something a bit broader about education.

He was thin on specifics, but he did address the concern that too many Americans - especially poorer Americans - were "locked out of the opportunity" to realise their potential.

Viewers, and voters, had been given only a tantalising glimpse of what the candidates stood for on education

Clinton took the cue and was soon getting into her stride: more focus on early childhood education, universal kindergarten provision, and an end to No Child Left behind "as it is presently operating".

She also wanted more college aid instead of these "outrageous, predatory student loans that are charging 25% to 28% interest rates". "Let's make college affordable again" was her rallying cry.

But that was it. Just as it was getting interesting, the moderators were on to something else and then, soon after, wrapping up the debate.

Viewers, and voters, had been given only a tantalising glimpse of what the candidates stood for on education.

Yet both Obama and Clinton have detailed education reform plans.

Maybe the winner of the Democratic race will get a chance to debate education with John McCain?

But I would not bet on it.

Perhaps this failure to engage with the big issues in education is symptomatic of a deeper problem for America: a lack of will to engage with one of its deepest problems?

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