Senators McCain and Obama both say public schools need work, but neither of their proposed solutions get to the root problem of our education crisis.
Mr. McCain has supported President Bush's No Child Left Behind policy, albeit with qualifications, calling the policy a "good beginning" but maintaining that "there are a lot of things that need to be fixed." He plans to fix many of these problems with financial incentives, distributed in a decentralized, entrepreneurial network of schools.
At the NAACP convention last week, Mr. McCain promised to expand school choice, Opportunity Scholarships, and alternative certification for teachers. Another of his solutions for failing school systems — linking student test scores to teacher pay — runs afoul of the national teachers unions, but Mr. Obama supports the idea as well, as long as teachers participate in designing the plans.
Mr. Obama showed less sympathy for No Child Left Behind. He told an American Federation of Teachers' conference his education reform would start by "fixing the broken promises" of the policy. His solution is put a lot more taxpayer money into what he called a failed program.
Unlike Mr. McCain, Mr. Obama plans to increase financial support, rather than financial incentives, as the solution to school woes. And he has disparaged Mr. McCain's votes against funding increases for education and his "tired rhetoric about vouchers and school choice."
The newly elected president of the AFT, Randi Weingarten, does not think Mr. Obama's funding increases are enough to turn around underperforming schools.
"The folks who believe that this can all be done on teachers' shoulders, which is what No Child tries to do, are doing a huge disservice to America," Ms. Weingarten said in her July 14 address to the AFT.
Ms. Weingarten envisions a future in which a wide variety of community functions take place under the umbrella of the public school.
"Imagine if schools had the educational resources children need to thrive, like smaller classes and individualized instruction, plentiful, up-to-date materials and technology anchored to that rich curriculum, decent facilities, an early start for toddlers, and a nurturing atmosphere," Ms. Weingarten said.
Ms. Weingarten's proposal would swell schools to an unprecedented role in community life. She is mistaken in thinking schools are a suitable replacement for family and church functions. Schools that lack the parent-child dynamic and prohibit faith-informed dialogue cannot fill the void of the traditional family and community church.
Even Ms. Weingarten's distaste for customary family and church roles does not blind her to their benefits for students. The positive effect of those institutions is firmly substantiated in the social sciences.
Mapping America, a project of the Family Research Council, catalogues the societal effects of family and church. It has examined high school grade point averages in America, using data from the National Longitudinal Sample of Adolescent Health.
Regarding the family, Mapping America finds, "Students who live with their married biological parents carry the highest combined GPA" for English and math. Living with a stepparent, divorced parent, or cohabiting parents decreased the GPA by three-tenths of a point in the 16,000 student sample. Living with never-married parents or cohabiting adults, only one of whom is a biological parent, decreased the GPA a further tenth of a point.
Church attendance is also significant. Students who attend religious services at least weekly have an average GPA of 2.9, whereas those who never attend drop by three percentage points. In the middle, those who attend at least monthly and less than monthly score 2.8 and 2.7, respectively.
When family structure and church attendance are combined, the results are even more striking. Students from intact families who worship at least monthly average a GPA of 2.9, but students from broken families who worship less score only 2.5.
Senators McCain and Obama would do well to heed in their education policies the demonstrated importance of the family and church. Increased school choice and financial support may well be part of the answer, but the foundation for healthy children's education is institutional strength in the family and church.
Mr. Blackwell is a contributing editor of The New York Sun.