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Is Pre-K the Right Place to Put $10 Billion?

That's the question my colleague, David Hoff, asked a panel of education experts after a debate between advisers for both major presidential campaigns presented by Teachers College in New York City and webcast by Education Week and edweek.org. You can watch the panel discussion here.

The question referred to Sen. Barack Obama's plan to boost education spending by $18 billion a year, including $10 billion for pre-K.

Nearly all the participants agreed that early childhood education is a good place to invest, although all made the point that it's unlikely that an Obama administration—or a McCain administration, for that matter—will have that kind of spare cash lying around.

Lucy Calkins, a professor at Teachers College, said she couldn't think of a better place in education to significantly ramp up federal spending, since pre-K programs can put at-risk students on the right track before they even start school.

Eugene Hickok, who held a high-ranking position in the U.S. Department of Education under the current President Bush, said the government should track whether federal dollars improve outcomes for students. He said that was more important than targeting the money towards specific policies.

Hoff also asked what had been missing from the discussion between the advisers, Linda Darling-Hammond on behalf of the Obama campaign and the ubiquitous Lisa Graham Keegan, on behalf of the McCain camp.

Nearly all the participants agreed the answer was pretty obvious: Neither candidate talked much about the No Child Left Behind Act, which was due for reauthorization last year.

"I came here expecting to hear a lot of talk about NCLB," Calkins said. "It's becoming more clear that NCLB hasn't done the job of making sure no kids are left behind." She said the discussion didn't touch much on the "failures" of the law and how to fix them.

Hickok said he heard a lot of talk about policies that are encompassed under the federal law. "Politically, it's a tough issue," he said. "I can understand why neither of them had a full throttle endorsement of NCLB."

For more on the candidates' position on specific issues, check out this chart, which ran in this week's edition of Edweek.

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