Making the Grade

The Times-Picayune gets it right when evaluating the candidates’ education policies

Just yesterday, I called for papers to fill their pages with substantive, local-minded stories about how campaign rhetoric will translate into real-life legislation on the ground.

Today, The Times-Picayune delivers just that with a critical look at McCain’s and Obama’s education-policy proposals—and at how they would affect New Orleans’s troubled public schools system.

There’s been a lot of focus on New Orleans charter schools as the city tries to repair its ailing public education system post-Katrina. In June, The Washington Post reported that, according to the local officials, 53 percent of the city’s students were enrolled in charter schools—a state of affairs that the Post’s Jay Mathews called “an unparalleled education experiment, with possible lessons for troubled urban schools in the District and elsewhere.”

That’s why education policy has particular relevance in New Orleans—and the Times-Picayune piece gets to the point right away. First, it instantly frames the issue in local terms by asking Paul Vallas, superintendent of New Orleans’s Recovery School District—which oversees the city’s 100 or so worst-performing public schools—to weigh in on the issue. Vallas, in turn, offers a balanced perspective on the two proposals, without a taking a partisan line.

Next, reporter Bruce Alpert offers a sharp summation of the candidates’ positions: “The primary differences between Obama and McCain on education amount to financing.”

Alpert notes both the specifics offered by the candidates and the criticisms they have faced. The two differ, for instance, on how to reform the No Child Left Behind Legislation, with Obama proposing testing reform and McCain advocating greater choice for parents. McCain has not mentioned education as an area that would be protected during his proposed spending freeze, while Obama’s support of charter schools is unpopular with some Democratic voters.

Finally, the piece holds the candidates accountable for their positions on NCLB.

Neither McCain nor Obama offers many specifics about the changes in the law they would support, said Michael Petrilli, vice president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, an educational think tank.

“They are being rather vague, perhaps because the law is unpopular with both parties’ bases. The Republican base believes No Child Left Behind is a major federal intrusion into local control, and the Democrats’ liberal base, particularly the teacher unions, consider the punitive nature of the law unfair, ” Petrilli said.

Meaningful comparisons, analysis, context: What’s not to like? (One could object that the think tank Petrilli represents is run by the conservative Chester E. Finn Jr., but his comments are balanced and critical of both parties.)

Education has gotten short shrift on the trail because of issues both important (the economy) and trivial (Bill Ayers), and it’s great that The Times-Picayne has given this particular story some prime real estate on its front page today. Other papers, take note.

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Katia Bachko is on staff at The New Yorker.