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Education debate tonight at Columbia a duel of 'fundamental opposites'


Phil Ciciora, News Editor

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Photo by L. Brian Stauffer
James Anderson, the Gutsgell Professor of educational policy studies at Illinois, says education has not received much attention during the 2008 presidential campaign.

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — If there’s one issue the candidates have been near silent on in the run-up to Election Day, it’s education. But when the education advisers for John McCain and Barack Obama square off in a surrogate debate about where their candidate stands on the issues tonight (Oct. 21), it will be a battle of “fundamental opposites” on the educational policy spectrum, says James D. Anderson, the Gutsgell Professor of educational policy studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

“Education and the Next President,” a live debate at Teachers College, Columbia University, between Linda Darling-Hammond, education adviser to Democratic presidential nominee Obama, and Lisa Graham Keegan, education adviser to Republican nominee McCain, will begin at 7 p.m. CDT.

The event will be streamed on the Web by Education Week and and by Teachers College.

Susan Fuhrman, president of Teachers College, will moderate the debate.

McCain and Obama briefly discussed education during their final 2008 presidential debate Oct. 15 at Hofstra University, but it was one of the last questions on a night dominated by an imploding economy, Bill Ayers, Joe the Plumber, and a host of foreign-policy issues.

“The candidates have not really focused on education during the debates, and the moderators have not questioned them on American education either,” Anderson said. That means those who will be most affected by the outcomes of the candidates’ educational policy – the public – will be largely unaware of what they are before casting their ballot on Nov. 4

The fact that no one is paying attention “reflects the central problem of American education,” he said.

Despite the lack of debate exposure and media coverage, Anderson said that each of the candidate’s positions on education is clear: McCain favors a market-based solution for education while Obama supports strengthening the public school system.

“With Obama, you’ve got a philosophy that really looks at issues of equity and resources for those kids who are in need, a limited reliance on vouchers and choice, and a much greater reliance on helping the public education system,” Anderson said. “With McCain, he doesn’t seem to have a public education policy. You hear a lot more about vouchers, choice and privatization, but he hasn’t said how he would fund those mandates at this point.”

Anderson said it’s not clear where McCain stands on No Child Left Behind, the controversial federal law enacted to improve the performance of primary and secondary schools by increasing the standards of accountability while also allowing parents more flexibility in choosing which schools their children attend.

While Obama likes some parts of No Child Left Behind, Anderson said the Democratic nominee doesn’t like the idea of unfunded mandates.

“Obama has said that special education remains an unfunded mandate,” Anderson said. “He would like that to be a federally funded mandate, and I think he would like No Child Left Behind to be a federally funded mandate as well. McCain has said he wants to cut spending across the board, and if you do that, you can’t fund things like special education.”

Anderson also thinks the debate at Columbia could serve as an open audition for a future education secretary.

“Usually, a candidate’s education adviser or someone like them eventually becomes the nominee’s education secretary,” he said.

Depending on who won the election, “you would end up with very different educational philosophies running the Department of Education.” Anderson noted that if Keegan were nominated by McCain, you would get someone who’s “extremely conservative, probably more conservative than McCain” and someone who’s opposed to access, equity, school desegregation and bilingual education.

“If you look at when she was superintendent, the state of Arizona took a stand against most of those things,” he said.

Anderson, an educational historian at Illinois, is a member of the National Academy of Education, considered the highest honor in the field of educational scholarship, and the author of “The Education of Blacks in the South, 1860-1935” (1988), which received the Outstanding Book Award that year from the American Educational Research Association.

He has written numerous published articles and book chapters on the history of education, and has been an adviser and on-air expert for several Public Broadcasting Service documentaries, including “School: The Story of American Public Education” (2001) and “The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow” (2002).

Editor’s note: To contact James D. Anderson, call 217-333-7404; e-mail