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Obama's education rollout

From NBC/National Journal's Aswini Anburajan
Obama unveiled an ambitious $18 billion plan to expand public education from
pre-school through 12th grade while at Central High School in Manchester, New Hampshire this morning.

Calling education "the currency of the Information Age," Obama stressed the need for expanding public programs to help American competitiveness with other nations. He said that a child in Boston now needs the training to compete with the kids getting an equal or better education in Bangalore or Beijing.

"In this kind of economy, countries who out-educate us today will out-compete us tomorrow," Obama said. "Already, China is graduating eight times as many engineers as we are. By 12th grade, our children score lower on math and science tests than most other kids in the world."

Obama criticized No Child Left Behind, saying that educating America's children shouldn't involve teaching them how to "fill in bubbles." He also used the unpopular education bill to take a dig at the records of both Clinton and Edwards.

"It's pretty popular to bash No Child Left Behind on the campaign trail," Obama said, "but when it was being debated four years ago, my colleague Dick Durbin offered everyone a chance to vote so the law couldn't be enforced until it was fully funded. Senator Edwards and Senator Clinton passed on that chance, and I believe it was a serious mistake."

Obama's education plan calls for: (1) full funding for educational programs from birth to 5 years old; (2) increasing the number of teachers through scholarships and incentive grants for taking challenging assignments; (3) prioritizing math and science education; and (4) focusing on parental responsibility in education.

The focus of Obama's education policy is on birth to 5, years Obama said were pivotal in children's development. The investment he added would be paid back to society 10-fold. His plan sets the goal for universal pre-school, but does not provide require parents to enroll their kids in it. 

"And for every dollar we invest in early childhood education," Obama said, "we get $10 back in reduced welfare rolls, lower healthcare costs and less crime."

He cited his record in the Illinois Senate, where he said that he started the Early Learning Council, to point to how early education programs could be successfully implemented.

In order to address the current teacher shortage, Obama said that he would create a national teacher service corps, which would provide $25,000 scholarships to encourage undergraduates to become teachers. He also called for "professionalizing" teaching, creating a career ladder that would allow teachers to pass national assessment tests and reward teachers who perform well.  

Aides to the senator, however, quickly disputed that this is "merit pay," which they say simply ties compensation to how students perform on a standardized test. Obama has in the past called for performance-based pay -- most notably while at the National Education Association's annual conference.

The Obama plan, though, does provide a "differentiated compensation system," which would reward teachers for undergoing additional training, for demonstrated learning gains by students, and for showing expertise and leadership. It would also allow teachers to take a role in deciding how to design their compensation at the local level.

Policy aides also disagreed with the idea that this plan was a significant expansion of the role of federal government in public education, saying the investment was in line with the current role that federal government plays in enhancing and supporting states' roles in providing public education. Instead, they pointed to Obama's call for parental involvement in education as a sign of his commitment that education must rely on partnership between parents and public educators.

Though Obama called for a renewed investment in math and science education, his plan would actually pull money from the federal government's greatest investments and achievements in math and science. Obama would delay funding for the NASA Constellation program for five years, though he would maintain the $500 million in funding the program would receive for its manufacturing and technology base, in order to help fund his education policy. The campaign did not say how much money delaying the program would provide. 

The plan would also be paid for through the auctioning off of surplus public land, closing the CEO pay deductibility loophole, reduce costs of standardized procurement and through the some of the money that would be saved by ending the war in Iraq. 

This is the third significant domestic policy Obama has unveiled in the past two weeks. Earlier this month, under the umbrella of a middle-class agenda, Obama unveiled tax-savings plans, day care and child care credits and the expansion of the Family and Medical Leave Act. In Iowa yesterday, Obama touted his commitment to community colleges and called for grants to expand their reach.

*** UPDATE *** The Edwards campaign responds: "In the days before Thanksgiving, we are grateful for the existence of actual facts. In his rush to criticize others, Senator Obama left out the inconvenient fact that he supported No Child Left Behind as an Illinois state senator before he opposed it as a presidential candidate. It's not 'a new kind of politics' to try to have it both ways. When John Edwards is president, he will make sure that every school in America has the resources it needs to give its students a world-class education."