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Advisers Clash Over School Funding Issues

From Dakarai Aarons, Education Week staff writer:

Superintendents and board members representing several of the nation’s urban school districts grilled education advisers for the presidential campaigns of Republican Sen. John McCain and Democratic Sen. Barack Obama.

The panel at the Council of the Great City Schools’ annual conference on Friday, featured McCain senior education adviser Lisa Graham Keegan, a former Arizona state superintendent and Obama education adviser Jonathan H. Schnur, a co-founder of urban principal training group New Leaders for New Schools.

The session, held in Houston, Texas, was designed to make sure the nation’s urban school leaders got a chance to share their views directly with the two major campaigns, said Michael Casserly, executive director of the Washington-based council, which is made up of 66 school districts.

Keegan praised the council for releasing an open letter to the next president earlier in the week, saying it had the most detailed plans sent to the campaigns.

McCain defines public education more broadly, Keegan said, to include charter schools and voucher programs, as long as they are open to all students and publicly report academic progress.

Improving education can’t succeed “by defining education only as what we did yesterday,” she said. “The issue we face is the civil rights issue of our times. There is no question."

Keegan issued a challenge to the group, saying that if the group of urban superintendents could get their states to agree on a set of voluntary standards, a President McCain would support their efforts.McCain doesn’t believe in the creation of national education standards but is supportive of the efforts of the American Diploma Project, which has joined 33 states to work on a common set of standards for high school graduates.

Abelardo Saavedra, superintendent of the Houston independent school district, said he supports national standards, especially in light of the far reach the federal No Child Left Behind law has in the operation of local schools.

“I don’t believe we can have a federal accountability system without some kind of national standards," he said.

Schnur said Sen. Obama also favors having governors and states work together on assessments. He also took the time to highlight Obama’s focus on teacher quality, parental responsibility, and money to help students go to college.

When moderator and veteran journalist Dan Rather gave school board members and superintendents on the panel a chance to respond, they said they agreed with elements of the proposals of both campaigns. But like others in the audience, they were concerned about how it would be paid for in the midst of a global financial crisis.

Eileen Cooper Reid, a member of the Cincinnati school board, said candidates need to make sure funding follows federal education mandates.

“Don’t come to us with standards and don’t come to us with accountability if you aren’t going to come to us with the resources to do it. “

“The only way we are going to bail ourselves out in the long-term is to teach and learn our way out,” Schnur said. “Sen. Obama sees this as an investment, not just as an expenditure."

Keegan said that McCain sees education as a top priority, but is also being cautious in light of the serious economic conditions. She also reminded her fellow educators that federal education spending had increased significantly over the last six years, and that they should challenge their respective states to provide more adequate funding for classrooms and aging facilities.

You can watch the full exchange from the town hall meeting later this week at the council’s Web site

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