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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

Education advocates have been issuing this plea to the presidential hopefuls for months, please talk about schools. And details of the candidates' platforms have now started to emerge over the past few weeks.

NPR's Larry Abramson reports on where Barack Obama and John McCain stand on education.

LARRY ABRAMSON: Both candidates want American students to be the best, and who doesn't? But Senator Obama wants to ride the success in a vehicle that will cost the federal government a lot more than it does now. According to Michael Johnston it will cost…

Mr. MICHAEL JOHNSTON (High School Principal): Ten billion for pre-K. So for zero to five, it's roughly 10 billion of a package for zero to five, and about eight billion in the K through 12 area.

ABRAMSON: Johnston is a high school principal in the Denver area. He's a soldier in the army of education surrogates for Obama who is proposing about a 30 percent increase in federal spending on education.

Mr. JON SCHNUR (Chief executive officer and co-founder of New Leaders for New Schools): It includes both expansion of after-school programs to extend learning time…

ABRAMSON: That's Jon Schnur, another surrogate. He runs a non-profit called New Leaders for New Schools. Schnur has to talk fast because Obama is contemplating a Christmas list of programs that will reach from cradle to college.

Mr. SCHNUR: …and as well as strategic investments at the middle school and high school level. We have…

ABRAMSON: John McCain also wants to get to education utopia. But rather than loading up his vehicle with options, he would remove obstacles from the road. Former Arizona education superintendent Lisa Graham Keegan is doing much of the talking for McCain.

Ms. LISA GRAHAM KEEGAN (Former Arizona Education Superintendent): Senator McCain's program is all about creating a system in which we get beyond needles bureaucratic and regulatory constraints that are keeping the best and the brightest from coming in to education and providing the solutions that we need.

ABRAMSON: One of those obstacles for McCain is clearly the teacher's unions. Lisa Graham Keegan says rigid teacher contracts are stifling innovation.

Ms. GRAHAM KEEGAN: If you are constantly counting the minutes and the dollars that go into that endeavor and you refuse to give an extra minute without an extra dollar, we can't go anywhere.

ABRAMSON: Sound familiar? It should, because Republican candidates have pointed the finger at teachers unions for decades. Both major teachers unions have endorsed Obama despite the fact that he has endorsed so-called performance pay, bonuses for successful teachers, something many unions have resisted.

Obama would let teachers negotiate how to dole out those bonuses, McCain would let principals decide, something unions roundly reject. So, where is No Child Left Behind in all of this? Obama regularly bashes the landmark education law saying it's underfunded. But as Obama advisor Mike Johnston says, Obama is not planning to drop the law's most controversial provision, the heavy reliance on standardized tests.

Mr. JOHNSTON: He's not stepping back from that idea that there needs to be a measurement of those questions, and he's not looking to replace assessments altogether with something different.

ABRAMSON: John McCain also has no plans to overhaul No Child Left Behind, though the Republican senator does say children of schools that fail to meet federal standards should receive vouchers so they can attend private schools. Not unexpectedly, Senator Obama opposes vouchers.

Still, there is some hope among (unintelligible) that the campaign may change some views about No Child Left Behind. Mike Petrilli is with the conservative-leaning Fordham Foundation.

Mr. MIKE PETRILLI (Vice President for National Programs, Fordham Foundation): Barack Obama has focused almost all of his comments on how to improve schools in distressed urban or rural areas. John McCain's platform seems to be somewhat broader. He's talking about issues that could appeal, I think, more broadly to middle class voters, at least as it pertains to their own schools.

ABRAMSON: Wherever this issue goes, Obama and McCain will be working in the shadow of No Child Left Behind which has set the terms of the debate, like it or not.

Larry Abramson, NPR News.

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