HISTORICALLY, education was a tricky issue for presidential candidates, because the most important decisions about education -- funding, hiring, content -- are made by local politicians. But the Bush administration's No Child Left Behind law, one of the most aggressive recent federal interventions into education, has made schools into a live issue. By turning the law's name into a symbol of hypocrisy during the Democratic primaries, Howard Dean made the subject unavoidable.
That doesn't make it easy. For Sen. John F. Kerry, in fact, education policy presents a minefield. On the one hand, his Senate record shows that he has long favored accountability for schools and higher training standards for teachers. He also comes from a state, Massachusetts, that has successfully brought in a high school graduation exam and has used testing data to focus educational spending more narrowly on the children who need it most. These factors probably explain why he voted for the No Child law, which was supposed to require both accountability and standards. At the same time, teachers unions, which are major supporters of the Democratic Party, have made no secret of their dislike of the law and their wish to see it radically changed or repealed.
Perhaps as a result, Mr. Kerry's campaign has produced a gaggle of proposals that contain much that is interesting, but much that is open to interpretation as well. On paper, or through his advisers, he says that he still supports No Child Left Behind in principle but that he would change its implementation -- which we agree has been botched -- and increase school funding in practice. One major proposal would provide $30 billion for teachers, to be spent on salaries, training and incentives for those who work in the toughest schools (with money to come from a repeal of the presidents' tax cuts for upper brackets). If the money is spent well, it could make a big difference, pushing states toward hiring more qualified teachers; research shows that improving teacher qualifications improves schools. But money alone can't ensure that that happens, as Mr. Kerry seems to know. On paper, his education proposals state clearly that higher pay and better incentives would be accompanied by "rigorous tests for all new teachers," as well as rules that would "ensure schools can replace teachers who perform poorly."
In person, Mr. Kerry sometimes sounds a different note. Asked this week in Washington about new federal testing regimes and accountability standards, he described them as "punitive," a charge that doesn't exactly shore up public confidence in the new system, or increase schools' incentives to raise standards. He both supported testing -- "we have to know kids are learning" -- and in the same sentence said it was necessary to look at "the other factors by which you measure a child's progress," whatever that means. He also talked less about raising teaching standards, and more about not forcing teachers who have been teaching for 20 years to "go back and be recertified." Needless to say, on the campaign trail he rarely mentions the importance of firing weak teachers.
There is a pattern here. If Mr. Kerry's sometimes fierce rhetoric questioning the value of trade is matched by what his aides say is quiet support for trade, perhaps it is no surprise that his sometimes harsh vocal opposition to accountability standards also appears to be matched by quiet support for them. Maybe that's just what happens during a political campaign -- but it would help Mr. Kerry later if he worked harder on building constituencies for difficult issues now.