Weighing the candidates; Native education platforms

WASHINGTON - Sens. John McCain and Barack Obama, the presumptive Republican and Democratic presidential candidates, respectively, both say they care a lot about education. But how do they stack up when it comes to issues that affect Native students?

At a meeting hosted by the New American Foundation in late July, officials with the National Indian Education Association got a chance to ask a campaign adviser from each campaign about their Native-focused education policies.

Saying that the education of Indian students often acts as a ;'canary in the coal mine'' for the state of education, NIEA High School Policy Initiative Coordinator Kerry Venegas asked the advisers to comment on their candidate's policies on Native education, especially given that the national graduation rate for Native students is less than 50 percent.

McCain educational adviser Lisa Graham Keegan, a former Arizona superintendent of public instruction, emphasized the Arizona senator's history with Native groups in his state as well as his ongoing commitment to partnering with tribes to meet the needs of Native students, including support for culture and language.

Elaborating on that response, Hessy Fernandez, a spokeswoman for the McCain campaign, said the senator ''believes education must be worthy of the promise we make to our children and ourselves.''

''He has pushed for reforms to BIA schools and an increase in resources for tribal education programs. He fully understands that providing educational opportunities to our nation's Native American children is critical to preparing for productive livelihoods, including the preservation of Native languages and cultural identity.''

Fernandez added that McCain ''will continue the BIA construction initiative, which has provided $1 billion for the construction of new schools and renovations of others schools on reservations.''

In more broad terms, Keegan also emphasized McCain's continuing commitment to the goals of the No Child Left Behind Act. She stated that his focus is on creating ways for schools to immediately make changes to help students by ''getting past bureaucratic systems'' that sometimes prevent schools from sharing information with each other.

Keegan added that McCain doesn't support a one-size-fits-all education policy approach, instead backing creativity and the use of data for continuous immediate assessments to respond to students. She underscored the need to use data on student achievement as a way to review teacher performance. She said, too, that teacher education programs should be held accountable for ensuring that the teachers they prepare are proficient in specific subjects, and face the consequences, such as replacement, for those who fall short of the state objectives.

At the New American Foundation event, Obama educational adviser Jon Schnur, former senior adviser on education to Vice President Al Gore, highlighted his candidate's commitment to developing, retaining and rewarding a high-quality teaching force that would serve in hard-to-staff areas like Indian reservations and rural school districts.

Calling these educators ''the new generation,'' Schnur mentioned policies that would provide full scholarships at both undergraduate and graduate levels for teachers willing to make a four-year commitment to teaching.

Schnur also shared Obama's broader goals. He said the senator from Illinois wants to focus on high standards of accountability, maintaining gains, and accelerating the quality of teaching and leadership by cultivating human capital in our nation's teachers and school leaders.

On the No Child Left Behind front, Schnur said Obama proposes to properly fund the law in addition to providing more specific support for early learning programs and for developing, rewarding and retaining the highest-quality teaching professionals, and increasing support for early education.

Saying that ''equity and access issues are intertwined,'' Schnur detailed a desire to focus on teacher education programs in schools of education, which he said can lead to more accountability and more professionalized preparation, including apprenticeships and opportunities for educators to ''come up the professional ladder.''

For Obama, he said, the development of good educational policy involves listening carefully to different perspectives, examining the data and looking at what is working.

Lillian Sparks, executive director of NIEA, said that she's pleased from conversations she's had with the campaigns that both candidates are open to the idea of promoting language and culturally based education for Native children - one of the top legislative goals of the education association.

''I think they both have policies in place to do positive education outreach to the Indian population. We're very encouraged that both campaigns are paying attention to Native students.''

NIEA plans to soon release a transition paper focused on Native education, noting important priorities for the next administration, whether it is headed by McCain or Obama.