Presumptive presidential nominees Barack Obama (D) and John McCain (R) have released more details about their education platforms in recent days, with both candidates making technology a focal point of their plans.

However, there are stark differences in their proposals that reflect deeply different philosophies about the government’s role in education.

McCain favors federal funding for virtual schools and online courses as part of a larger focus on school-choice initiatives—including private school vouchers for low-income families. Obama, on the other hand, wants to invest more federal money into research and education for science, math, and technology.

McCain revealed details of his education plan in a speech before the NAACP, the nation’s oldest civil rights organization, on July 16. He said his plan focuses on strengthening the country’s schools through empowering parents and teachers and providing equality of school choice.

"For all the best efforts of teachers and administrators, the worst problems of our public school system are often found in black communities," he told the NAACP.

McCain added that he supports the Opportunity Scholarship that is offered in Washington, D.C., and uses public money to give private school vouchers to low-income families. Obama opposes private school vouchers.

"Too many of our children are trapped by geography and by economics in failing schools," states the McCain campaign’s web site.

Details of the Arizona senator’s education plan appeared on his campaign web site in conjunction with his July 16 speech.

According to the site, McCain plans to target $500 million in existing federal funds to build new virtual schools and support the development of online course offerings for students. The plan allots $250 million for states to build virtual math and science academies and another $250 million for digital-passport scholarships.

"Low-income students will be eligible to receive up to $4,000 to enroll in an online course, SAT/ACT prep course, credit recovery, or tutoring services offered by a virtual provider," the plan states.

Obama also recently posted more details about his education policies on his campaign web site, outlining his plan to invest in the research and development of science, math, and technology education.

"We currently make inadequate investments into researching and developing better educational tools and methods," the plan states, noting that less then seven-tenths of one percent of the $400 billion spent on education annually is spent on research and development. "As president, Barack Obama will double our investment in early education and educational [research and development] by the end of his first term in office. Part of this investment will involve [a research and development] program for improving science education."

The plan also notes that while jobs in science, math, engineering, and technology fields have increased, the number of students receiving higher-education degrees in those fields has declined.

"In the 21st century, everyone needs to know science and math, not only to find employment, but also to be healthy and well-informed citizens," Obama’s plan states. "Moreover, over 80 percent of the fastest growing occupations are dependent upon a knowledge base in science and math."

At the Association of Educational Publishers’ Great American Education Forum held June 6, Obama’s education advisor, Jeanne Century, said Obama also intends to push for broadband internet access in all K-12 schools and classrooms. But no mention of this idea appeared in the plan that was posted to Obama’s web site as of press time.

According to the plan, Obama also intends to focus on recruiting high-quality math and science teachers through a scholarship program.

"Barack Obama’s Teaching Service Scholarship program will prioritize recruiting math, science, and technology degree graduates. Additionally, Obama’s Teacher Residency Program can also supply teachers in these high-needs subject areas," the plan states.

Obama expanded on his teacher service scholarship plan during a July 5 speech to delegates from the National Education Association (NEA), the country’s largest teacher union.

"My plan includes service scholarships to recruit top teachers and residency programs to prepare them to serve in high-need schools," he said to the group via satellite, in accepting its endorsement. "And because too often undergraduate debt discourages our young people from choosing education as a profession, I will make this pledge to all who sign up—if you commit your life to teaching, America will commit to paying for your education."

Obama’s plan also focuses on ensuring that all children have access to high-quality early childhood education programs and child care, closing the achievement gap, and rewarding expert, accomplished teachers for taking on challenging assignments and helping students succeed.

"When our educators succeed, I will not just talk about how great they are, I will reward them for their greatness with better pay across the board and more support," he told the NEA representatives.

Supporting higher pay for exemplary performance is one area where the two candidates appear to share common ground, as McCain also called for merit pay for teachers in his speech to the NAACP.

It’s time to use vouchers and other tools such as merit pay for teachers to break from conventional thinking on educational policy, McCain told the civil-rights group.

Noting that Obama has dismissed support for private school vouchers for low-income Americans, McCain added: "All of that went over well with the teachers union, but where does it leave families and their children who are stuck in failing schools? No entrenched bureaucracy or union should deny parents that choice and children that opportunity."

Obama has spoken in favor of performance-based merit pay for individual public school teachers before, even telling the NEA the idea should be considered in a speech last year. However, in his July 5 speech to the organization, Obama said he doesn’t support merit pay as it is commonly understood—where teachers are rewarded based on how their students perform on standardized tests.

"Under my plan, districts will be able to design programs to give educators who serve them as mentors to new teachers the salary increases they’ve earned. [Districts will] be able to reward those who teach in underserved areas or take on added responsibility. And if teachers learn new skills or serve their students better, or if they consistently excel in the classroom, that work can be valued and rewarded as well," he said.

"Now in some places, we’ve already seen that it’s possible to find new ways to increase teacher pay that are developed with teachers, not imposed on teachers," Obama continued, to boos from the audience. "I know this wasn’t necessarily the most popular part of my speech last year, but I said it then and I say it again today—because it’s what I believe."

Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.

Links:

John McCain’s education policy

Barack Obama’s education policy

John McCain’s NAACP speech

Barack Obama’s NEA speech

eSN TechWatch newscast with Obama/McCain education advisors