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By Alexander Lane October 16, 2008

Centerpiece? More like a side dish

Sen. Barack Obama mocked his rival's education policy during the final presidential debate, saying Sen. John McCain planned to help a couple thousand students in Washington, D.C., and more or less ignore the rest of the country.

His attack came late in the debate, as the candidates sparred over how to improve schools.

Here's the exchange in context:

"I'm sure you're aware, Senator Obama, of the program in the Washington, D.C., school system where vouchers are provided," McCain said in the Oct. 15, 2008, debate. "There's a certain number, I think it's a thousand and some and some 9,000 parents asked to be eligible for that...They wanted to choose the school that they thought was best for their children...That was vouchers, Senator Obama. And I'm frankly surprised you didn't pay more attention to that example."

Obama countered: "Even if Senator McCain were to say that vouchers were the way to go — I disagree with him on this, because the data doesn't show that it actually solves the problem — the centerpiece of Senator McCain's education policy is to increase the voucher program in D.C. by 2,000 slots. That leaves all of you who live in the other 50 states without an education reform policy from Senator McCain."

The senators were referring to the four-year-old D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, under which 1,903 children from low-income families have received up to $7,500 a year for tuition to private schools. Republicans in Congress – who believe in improving public schools through competition by providing vouchers parents can use to pay for private-school tuition – created the program in 2004.

It's true that McCain is a strong advocate of the D.C. program. On his campaign Web site, he lists 13 items under the heading, "John McCain's Education Policy," including: "John McCain Will Expand The D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program."

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He devotes 87 words to the subject, while the average item receives 67 words.

"In our nation's capital, we have seen the dramatic benefits of giving parents control of money and choices," the site says. "The Opportunity Scholarship program serves more than 1,900 students from families with an average income of $23,000 a year. More than 7,000 more families have applied for that program. The budget for the Opportunity Scholarships is currently $13 million. John McCain believes that this extremely successful program should expand to at least $20 million benefiting nearly a thousand more families."

Obama actually overstated the number of slots McCain would add to the program. But more importantly, there's no indication that plan is the "centerpiece" of McCain's education policy.

True, there are just two items to which McCain's education page devotes more words.

But three of the items outline different ways McCain would, as the site puts it, "Ensure that our children have quality teachers," an effort that would be national in scope. He would devote 5 percent of certain federal funds (Title II funds) to recruit teachers who graduated in the top quarter of their class, set aside 60 percent of those funds as bonuses for high-performing teachers, and use 35 percent of the funds for teacher development.

It was clear to us that McCain's plan to use — or continue using — Title II funds to improve teaching is the centerpiece of his education policy, even before McCain spokesman Brian Rogers said this in an e-mail: "The focus of our plan is the reform of...Title 1 and 2 funding – which is in excess of 16 billion dollars...Moreover, we have higher ed and early ed policy which have nothing to do with the DC opportunity scholarship expansion."

We agree. On this one, Obama gets an F for False.

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