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Commentary By Marcus A. Winters

Time for McCain To Answer

In the past weeks, Barack Obama finally brought education policy into the presidential debate in a speech in Dayton, Ohio. With Mr. Obama's proposal public, the October domestic policy debates will provide a chance for Mr. McCain to clarify his education plan.

Public education is an important issue, and it deserves far greater attention this election season than it has received thus far. The new president will have a large impact on the future of America's public schools if only because in his first term he will be faced with the reauthorization of No Child Left Behind. Now that Mr. Obama has elaborated on his position on education, it deserves careful consideration.

In some ways the Democratic candidate seems to support actual reform for public schools. In a break from the union line, Mr. Obama has pledged to increase school choice by doubling spending on charter schools across the nation. Doing so puts him in the same company as John McCain, who has made school choice the centerpiece of his education platform.

Mr. Obama deserves real praise for backing up his support for charter schools with a tangible plan to expand their number. A growing body of research suggests that charter schools benefit both the students who choose to attend them and those who remain in regular public schools. Charter schools are a step forward towards greater school choice—and better educational quality.

Mr. Obama also seems to have bucked the education status quo by stating support for the idea of performance pay for teachers. However, often Mr. Obama's praise for performance pay is quickly followed by an important caveat: that such a policy must be "developed with teachers, not imposed upon them." The trouble with that formulation is that it invites in the teachers' unions. It's hard to imagine that a policy the unions have a hand in crafting could produce meaningful reform of the compensation system.

Some may question whether Mr. Obama's support for charter schools and performance pay will last if he gains the White House. But even the most cynical reading of his motives indicates that the Democratic presidential candidate considers support for these reforms to be a safe and even popular position, which bodes well for their future.

On the other hand, voters should take pause when Mr. Obama discusses how he would push back accountability programs that are helping to make public schools better. This is particularly worrisome because we know for certain that the next president will have a hand in the reauthorization of No Child Left Behind.

Mr. Obama praises the idea of "accountability," but he rails against current high-stakes testing policies that, he says, prepare kids only "to fill in a few bubbles on a standardized test." He also opposes the sanctions accompanying such policies because they entail "labeling a school and its students as failures one day and then throwing your hands up and walking away from them. ... "

Such rhetoric ignores an expanding body of research suggesting that accountability policies that sanction poorly performing schools produce real and substantial academic improvements. Further, a recent study by my colleagues Jay Greene and Julie Trivitt and me found that students in Florida schools labeled "failing" made substantial academic gains not only in the high-stakes subjects of reading and math but also in science, a subject not included in that state's accountability program.

Instead of countenancing sanctions, Mr. Obama favors providing failing schools with additional resources. It is unclear how he would identify poorly performing schools if not through the use of standardized exams. Furthermore, current accountability policies work precisely because schools are motivated to avoid sanctions. In their absence, urban public schools with a captive clientele of low-income students have little incentive to improve. Rather than encourage bad schools to get better, the policy Mr. Obama champions would reward them with more money.

A review of Mr. Obama's education plan shows real distance from the status quo set by past Democratic Party leaders and teachers unions. But Mr. Obama's lack of commitment to proven accountability methods threatens the success of the reforms of the past.

At the least, the candidates' interest in the topic may indicate that we can finally have a real discussion about how to improve the nation's public schools. It is a discussion that needs to be had.

This piece originally appeared in The New York Sun

This piece originally appeared in The New York Sun