Whatever Happened to the ‘Education President?’

The last three presidents clamored for the title but in 2008, the economy, terrorism, and "Saturday Night Live" skits have pushed education out of the media’s election circus.

However, since Jimmy Carter’s election in 1976, American schooling has proven to be a decisive issue in voters’ decision making. So, for those still interested, which candidate will likely make the best "Education President?"

Tellingly, the third parties all hold to the historic position that an Education President is incongruous with the United States. The Greens, Libertarians, and the Constitution Party all agree that the federal government should get out of parents’ way and let freedom ring. However, none of those parties have nominated the next president of the United States.

The viable candidates are Senators Obama and McCain; and, while neither advocates that education be fully returned to state and local governments, the difference between the two is dramatic and worthy of consideration.

Democratic candidate Barack Obama emphasizes early education. According to his official campaign website: "For every one dollar invested in high quality, comprehensive programs supporting children and families from birth, there is a $7-$10 return to society in decreased need for special education services, higher graduation and employment rates, less crime, less use of the public welfare system, and better health."

Simply put, this claim is laughable. Perhaps it could be considered a harmless bit of campaign rhetoric if not for the plan of action that Obama, in turn, generates out of the specious claim.

If elected president, Obama plans to implement his "comprehensive ‘Zero to Five’ plan, [which] will provide critical supports to young children and their parents by investing $10 billion per year" in early childhood education and help states move toward "universal preschool."

Though no one desires to sound "anti-education," universal preschool is a false panacea at best; a nightmare at worst.

A study completed in 2006 by the Reason Foundation found that "preschool enrollment has increased from 16 to 66 percent since 1965. And yet this massive growth in preschool attendance and time spent in the classroom has not resulted in increased student achievement."

The foundation also notes that Georgia, Oklahoma, and the province of Quebec, which have had universal preschool for years, not only have failed to see academics improve, but have witnessed an overall deterioration in the well-being of children. In contrast, Finland, where school begins at age seven, regularly trounces its European neighbors in international academic testing.

Republican candidate for President John McCain doesn’t advocate going the way of Finland, but his official campaign website correctly notes: "There is no shortage of federal programs targeted at early child care and preschool. State and federal funding for early childhood care and education programs is over $25 billion each year. The list of programs includes Head Start, Title I preschool programs, Early Head Start, Even Start, the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act, Early Reading First, the Social Services Block Grant, the Child Care and Development Block Grant, and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families."

In contrast to Obama’s, McCain’s website is not loaded down with new ten-billion-dollar government-education programs. To some this may not seem as exciting as grand claims of change, but it is the wiser course financially, academically, and politically.

Obama has been labeled by many as the most liberal major party candidate in American history. His educational ideas justify the assertion. Though labeled "voluntary," training children in government programs from the age of zero ultimately undermines freedom. This educational path in America is well-worn; programs originally begun as "voluntary" quickly become entitlements, and ultimately required.

Getting parents out of the way in order to create a "utopia" is an idea as old as Plato and as frighteningly contemporary as communism.

The ancient Greek philosopher Isocrates warned teachers not to claim too much ability in changing individual lives or society lest their reputation with the people continue to dwindle.

In this case, it is not a teacher but a politician that is making bold claims as to the efficacy of school. However, current research does not back up Senator Obama’s grandiose claims and the American taxpayer should not have to pay for his wishful rhetoric in either a loss of salary or freedom.

Rather than increasing federal intrusion into the lives of children from ages zero to five, Senator McCain emphasizes empowering parents and respecting families by holding existing programs accountable and supporting parents’ rights to choose what is best for their children.

If Americans are still interested in finding an "education president," they need to return to one who favors freedom.

Jason R. Edwards is Associate Professor of Education and History at Grove City College and a Research Fellow for the Center for Vision & Values.