Democratic and Republican presidential contenders have very different ideas about how to fix education in the United States. With the primary season still underway, Catalyst examined the education platforms of the two major candidates still in the running from each party.

Democrats Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama offered comprehensive platforms focused on preschool access, recruiting high-quality teachers and principals for high-poverty schools, curbing dropouts and increasing access to college. Both candidates want to offer college tuition tax credits and increase Pell grants for low-income students.

Clinton and Obama also would make it easier for families to apply for financial aid for college by scrapping the lengthy Free Application for Federal Student Aid form and allowing parents to simply check a box on their tax return that states they are applying for aid; families would receive a coupon from the U.S. Department of Education notifying them of the amount of grants and loans they qualify for.

On the Republican side, Arizona Sen. John McCain and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee offer few specifics, but focus on pledges to support home schooling, more charters and more school choice (which typically translates into support for vouchers).

Here are highlights from their platforms, along with links to their Web sites.

Hillary Clinton: The Youth Opportunity Agenda

See details of her education plan here.

Clustering her ideas for education, career training and social support for young people under the banner of a “Youth Opportunity Agenda,” Clinton includes proposals ranging from more preschool to offering tuition tax credits for college.

Following are more highlights:

Universal preschool: Clinton proposes to spend $5 billion to give states matching funds for high-quality universal preschool for 4-year-olds. Funding would increase to $10 billion within five years.

More college prep: Clinton would double federal funding for school-community partnerships that prepare kids for college. One such program is GEAR-UP, which provides middle and high school students with mentoring, tutoring and other support.

Recruit teachers and principals: Clinton proposes spending $500 million on financial incentives to attract experienced, high-quality teachers to low-income schools as teachers and coaches; provide performance-based rewards to teachers in schools that make achievement gains; and offer on-the-job training to principal candidates along with mentors during their first two years at a school.

Curb dropouts: Clinton proposes awarding $250 million per year in competitive grants to cities that develop local strategies to cut the dropout rate and keep at-risk youth in school.

College support: Community colleges would get $500 million in incentive grants to raise graduation rates and increase transfers to four-year institutions. Clinton also proposes a $250 million fund to provide grants to four-year colleges for programs aimed at increasing graduation rates for low-income and minority students.

Clinton’s platform also states that she supports early college high schools (in which students simultaneously earn a diploma and an associate’s degree); favors a common, national measure for high school graduation rates so that data are accurate and comparable among states; and wants to institute a new GI Bill that would pay all tuition and fees for veterans.

Barack Obama: Lifetime Success through Education

See details of his full plan here.

Unlike Clinton, who makes little mention of the controversial No Child Left Behind law, Obama’s platform affirms the candidate’s support for the goals of the law and outlines a plan to overhaul it by improving student assessments and offering incentives, rather than imposing sanctions, to hold states accountable for raising achievement.

Following are more highlights:

Early childhood: Obama proposes a $10 billion per year “Zero to Five” plan that includes challenge grants to states to create or expand infant, toddler and preschool programs; an expansion of Head Start and Early Head Start (for infants and toddlers); universal preschool for 4-year-olds; and increased funding for Child Care Development Block Grants and home visits by nurses to expectant low-income mothers. Obama also would establish a Presidential Early Learning Council to help states develop ways to blend programs and disseminate research and best practices.

Recruiting teachers: Obama would establish Teaching Service Scholarships of up to $25,000 to recruit prospective teachers in high-needs areas, such as math and science. He also would require teacher preparation programs to be accredited and favors development of a teacher performance assessment that would help states and districts do a better job of measuring teacher quality.

Citing Chicago’s Academy for Urban School Leadership as one example, Obama also pledges to develop 200 new teacher residency programs across the country. He also would provide better professional development through school-university partnerships, provide funding for mentoring programs and help school districts and teacher unions create ‘career ladders’ for teachers.

Recruiting principals: Obama would support principal development through incentive grants to help states and districts establish leadership academies at universities or other institutions. He also favors funding to help states craft new credentialing systems for principals that would require them to continue training in their first few years on the job.

Closing the achievement gap: Obama would offer grants to help districts pay for longer school days, improve middle-grades education, support alternative programs for dropouts and summer school programs for struggling students. Obama would double funding for the 21st Century Learning Centers after school initiative.

College access: To help 11th-graders determine whether they are on-track to get into college, Obama would spend $25 million to provide states with matching grants to develop Early Assessment Programs for these teens. He also would provide funds to help community colleges develop new technical career programs, improve graduation rates and increase transfers to 4-year institutions.

John McCain: Excellence, Choice, and Competition in American Education

See his full education proposal here.

The Arizona senator offers a long list of detailed tax cut proposals on his campaign Web site, but few specifics about how he would revamp education. His one-page statement on education focuses on a promise to “fight for the ability of all students to have access to all schools of demonstrated excellence, including their own homes.”

McCain pledges to “place parents and children at the center of the education process, empowering parents by greatly expanding the ability of parents to choose among schools for their children.” He believes “all federal financial support must be predicated on providing parents the ability to move their children, and the dollars associated with them, from failing schools.”

Mike Huckabee: Education and the Arts

See details of his plan here.

Huckabee claims test scores in Arkansas rose “dramatically” after he instituted education reforms as governor. He says our future economy depends on a creative generation. “Music and the arts are not extraneous, extra-curricular or expendable—I believe they are essential. I want to provide every child with these ‘Weapons of Mass Instruction.'”

Like McCain and Romney, Huckabee is a big supporter of school choice, charter schools and homeschooling. Also like his chief competitors, Huckabee’s Web site is short of details about how much his proposal would cost or how he would pay for them after abolishing personal, corporate, gift, estate, capital gains, alternative minimum, Social Security, Medicare and self-employment taxes and replacing them with a national sales tax—a key campaign promise.

Lorraine is the executive editor of The Chicago Reporter. Email her at

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