The Feb. 12 primaries in Maryland, Virginia, and the District of Columbia further advanced the notion that the 2008 presidential campaign now boils down to three legitimate candidates.

With sweeps of all three of the so-called Potomac primaries, Arizona Sen. John McCain solidified his hold on the Republican nomination. And though Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois also swept all three contests, winning by wide margins over his rival for the Democratic nomination, Sen. Hillary Clinton of New York, the two remain in a virtual dead heat in the race for delegates as the primary season rolls on.

As the campaign picture continues to become clearer, it’s time to take a closer look at the positions of all three candidates on issues relating to education and technology.

All three candidates believe the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) needs reform—but Clinton and Obama would go much farther than McCain in proposing changes to the law.

Both Clinton and Obama call for more funding to make NCLB work, but Clinton also addresses what she considers a fundamental problem with the law’s structure: She believes school accountability should be based on the year-to-year performance of students, rather than on how schools with disparate local funds stack up against each other.

Instead of asking low-income schools to catch up to wealthier institutions, she says, the program should deliver rewards and sanctions based on individual school improvement.

Obama would use federal resources to help states write new assessments that accurately measure students’ knowledge, including 21st-century skills such as critical thinking. He also favors making science education a higher priority in schools, and he wants to implement a comprehensive tracking and feedback system to measure the performance of both students and teachers from year to year.

McCain, meanwhile, wants to add greater flexibility under NCLB for children with disabilities and those with limited English proficiency. But he stops short of advocating wholesale changes to the law and its accountability measures.

Of the three candidates, Obama has been the most vocal about the need for schools to change to meet the needs of 21st-century learners. One big project that Obama wants to undertake is the creation of twenty “innovation school districts” throughout the country.

Obama’s Innovation Districts (IDs) plan would let districts apply for grants to implement education reforms, and twenty districts across the country would receive the grants. The IDs bill would appropriate $1.5 billion yearly for these districts, or about $75 million per district. These districts then would be viewed as models for educational innovation in other districts.

IDs would focus on teacher recruitment, training, and retention, offering pay increases to high-performing teachers and financial incentives to teachers willing to work in low-income schools. They also would be free to offer bonuses for subject-matter experts to teach math, science, and other high-need subject areas. IDs would be required to partner with local universities, charitable foundations, or community institutions to develop and execute their reform plans and would be divided evenly between urban and rural areas.

Obama said his plan would support and try to replicate successful initiatives already occurring on a local level, and these IDs would be led by school boards, principals, and teachers who are ready to forget business-as-usual and try a new path forward. These IDs would receive substantial new resources, but in return, they would be required to try systemic new reforms and would be held responsible for the results.

“Today, a child in Chicago is not only competing for jobs with one in Boston, but thousands more in Bangalore and Beijing who are being educated longer and better than ever before,” said Obama during a speech at an education forum in Chicago. “…We know that good schools will require both the structural reform and the resources necessary to prepare our kids for the future.”

This IDs plan is based on the Innovation District bill that Obama introduced in the Senate in both 2006 and 2007, which remains in committee.

Though Obama has favored charter schools, which he feels support change and progress, both he and Clinton strongly oppose private-school vouchers, believing they take away needed resources from public schools. McCain, however, has supported vouchers and school-choice initiatives, believing that public support for a child’s education should follow that child into the school the parent chooses.

All three candidates seem to realize the importance of rewarding teachers for their hard work. Obama supports paying teachers more for extra work and for those who raise student achievement, McCain has proposed $1 billion in tax breaks for teachers rated excellent by their states, and Clinton wants to attract and support outstanding teachers by offering better pay.

Recognizing that a child’s chances for success in school depend largely on the start he or she gets at home, both Clinton and Obama are pushing heavily for early childhood education, and both are promoting programs to help parents teach and guide their children. McCain hasn’t addressed early childhood education in his campaign.

Clinton wants to create a $10 billion Early Head Start program to expand pre-kindergarten education nationwide, with the goal of giving every four-year-old an opportunity to attend preschool. She also aims to give new parents support and training to promote healthy development of their children.
“I see an America where children are prepared before they go to school,” Clinton said on Feb. 12, speaking in El Paso, Texas.

Obama, meanwhile, has proposed a “Zero to Five” plan, which would provide support to young children and their parents. According to Obama, what makes his plan unique is the emphasis it places on early care and education for infants.

Technology-related issues

All three candidates say they support the need for fast and ubiquitous broadband access across the country.

Clinton wants tax incentives, under a “Connect America” plan, to encourage broadband providers to deploy services in underserved areas. She also has called for federal support of state and local broadband programs, including municipal broadband projects.

Obama takes a position similar to Clinton’s, saying he would seek to create new programs that would help roll out broadband service to more of the United States.

McCain has been less specific about how he would address the issue. But in 2005, McCain authorized legislation that would prohibit states from outlawing municipal broadband projects. At the time, he said he was concerned that the U.S. had fallen behind more than a dozen other countries on broadband adoption.

As for “net neutrality,” the idea that internet service providers should treat all traffic equally for all users, McCain has been noncommittal—but he has supported efforts to make an internet tax moratorium permanent, recently calling the internet “likely the most popular invention since the light bulb.”

Both Obama and Clinton have supported the concept of net neutrality. In a November technology policy paper, Obama stated: “Users must be free to access content, to use applications, and to attach personal devices,” while Clinton has cosponsored Senate legislation to “require all broadband providers to treat all internet traffic equally.”

Both Democrats also have pledged support for more innovative research. Obama has pledged to make the research-and-development tax credit permanent, and he has called for patent reform—primarily by giving the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office more resources to improve the quality of patents.

Clinton has an even more detailed plan. She champions an “innovation agenda” as one of her top issues, and she wants to increase the basic research budgets at the National Science Foundation, the Department of Energy’s Office of Science, and the Department of Defense by 50 percent over the next ten years.

Clinton also would require that federal research agencies set aside at least 18 percent of their research budgets for discretionary funding of high-risk research, and she would increase funding for research on internet and IT-based tools, including supercomputing and simulation software.

In addition, Clinton wants to study the impact of electronic media on children’s cognitive, social, and physical development.

Clinton wants to commission this study to help protect children against violence and sexual content in the media—especially the internet and video games. In 2005, she tried to pass the Family Entertainment Protection Act, which aimed to impose fines on those who would sell games rated “Mature” or “Adult Only” to minors, as well as ensure that consumers have a mechanism to file complaints with the FTC, but the bill never became law.

In a speech Clinton gave in March 2005, she said: “Media in kids’ lives is a moving target, and we need better, more current research to study the new interactive, digital, and wireless media dominating our kids’ lives. While we know a great deal about traditional media platforms and kids, we know very little about multi-user domains, P2P, and wireless technologies. … The media is the message; the process has an impact.”

Clinton would use the results of the study’s findings—which, she believes, based on findings of a previous Kaiser Family Foundation study, would show how media violence contributes to anxiety, desensitization, and increased aggression among children—to create one uniform ratings system that would be shown throughout every program or at least after every commercial break, so that parents can jump into a program at any point and learn what’s in it and whether it’s appropriate for their children to watch.

Clinton also hopes this research will prompt the television industry to air more public service announcements about the effect of TV on children and the need for parents to help their children use media in the best way possible. She hopes food advertisers will be more responsible about the effect they are having on future generations and the effect they are going to be having on increasing health care costs.

Finally, Clinton hopes such research will help reveal what works best to help parents monitor what their children access on the web.

Obama’s response to the effects of the media and technology on children could be described as more hands-off. In an interview with Common Sense Media, Obama said he would prefer the industry to take more personal responsibility before any government action is taken.

“I would call upon the video game industry to give parents better information about programs and games by improving the voluntary rating system we currently have. Broadcasters and video game producers should take it upon themselves to improve the system … but if the industry fails to act, then my administration would,” he said.

Obama agreed in part with Clinton’s research initiative, saying, “We need to understand the impact of these new media better. That’s why I supported federal funding to study the impact of video games on children’s cognitive ability.”

McCain has not weighed in on the impact of the new media on children during the current campaign. In 2000, however, McCain was a principal sponsor of the Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA). That law makes schools or libraries ineligible for federal e-Rate funding unless they certify to the Federal Communications Commission that they (1) have chosen to use a technology that filters or blocks access to material that is obscene or pornographic and (2) are enforcing its use when minors use the computers.

"Parents can protect their children from internet smut at home but have no control over the computers at school," McCain said at the time. "This legislation allows local communities to decide what technology they want to use and what to filter out, so that our children’s minds aren’t polluted."

President Bill Clinton signed the CIPA legislation in Dec. 2000.

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