A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

School Funding Misleads

An Obama ad plays fast and loose with McCain's voting record on education and proposals as a presidential candidate.


Summary

A new Obama-Biden ad includes misleading claims about McCain and education spending:

  • It says McCain "voted to cut education funding" and lists five votes. But one was a vote for increased education funding, although for fewer dollars than what Democrats may have wanted. And three others were votes against additional funding, not votes for funding cuts.
  • The ad says that "McCain’s economic plan gives $200 billion more to special interests while taking money away from public schools." Not exactly. McCain has proposed a one-year freeze on discretionary spending in general. A freeze would mean that funds would not keep pace with inflation and population growth, but no dollars would be "taken away." The $200 billion for "special interests" refers to the cost of McCain’s proposal to reduce the tax rate for all business corporations, not just a few "special" ones.
  • The ad says McCain proposed abolishing the Department of Education. He did once say in an interview that he "would certainly favor" abolishing both the departments of Education and Energy, but he hasn’t pushed for either.

Analysis

On Sept. 9, Obama gave a speech on education in Ohio, and his campaign released a new attack ad.

[TET ]

Obama-Biden Ad: "New Kind"

Narrator: When they grow up, will the economy be strong enough? Barack Obama understands what it takes: make America number one in education again. John McCain doesn’t understand. John McCain voted to cut education funding. Against accountability standards. He even proposed abolishing the Department of Education. And John McCain’s economic plan gives $200 billion more to special interests while taking money away from public schools. We can’t afford more of the same.

Obama: I’m Barack Obama and I approve this message.[/TET]

Distorting the Vote Record

The Obama ad says that McCain "voted to cut education funding" and lists five Senate votes. But only one of the five meets that description, and even then, the vote requires further explanation.

In 1995, McCain voted for a Republican budget resolution for fiscal year 1996 that would have reduced education spending from the previous year. But education was not the only budget item targeted. The resolution was actually one in a series of appropriations bills for departments ranging from Health and Human Services to the Department of Energy, and in each measure, the Newt Gingrich-led Republicans tried to reduce funding from the previous year’s level. President Bill Clinton refused to sign any of the measures, and the government was shutdown for a time.

Besides that vote to actually cut funding, the ad lists three votes against increased funding for the Department of Education. In the past, we’ve criticized Republicans for falsely attacking Obama on voting for tax increases when he actually voted against tax cuts. Obama’s ad applies the same faulty logic. Voting against an increase is notably different from voting for a funding cut. Those three votes were:

  • A vote McCain cast against an amendment to the 2006 budget resolution to increase discretionary education funding by $500 million. It passed anyway, and McCain voted for the final bill.
  • A vote against an amendment to the 2001 budget resolution that would have repealed tax cuts worth $250 billion in order to increase education funding. It passed anyway, and, again McCain voted for the final bill.
  • A vote against an amendment in 2001 to add $250 million to Title I funding for struggling schools. The measure failed.

Finally, the Obama campaign points to McCain’s vote in 2000 for the next year’s education appropriations bill, saying in their ad backup that it "underfunded" the department. But that legislation, which was signed into law by President Clinton, was a spending increase from the previous year.

Like Candy from a Baby?

The ad also says, "John McCain’s economic plan gives $200 billion more to special interests while taking money away from public schools." But that’s misleading.

To start, McCain’s plan doesn’t include any specific cuts to education programs and funding. Rather, he has proposed an across-the-board "freeze [of] non-defense, non-veterans discretionary spending for a year." So education grants, as well as all sorts of other government programs like farm subsidies and NASA projects, would not receive their annual funding increase for one year. Some would argue that a freeze is actually a cut when you factor in the effect of inflation. And others would go further and say it’s a cut if the money had been projected by an earlier budget.

Indeed, the Obama campaign provided us with an analysis done by the Tennessee affiliate of the National Education Association that demonstrated the difference in funding between a freeze and the anticipated increase from the previous year’s budget. To the NEA Tennessee branch, a freeze is a cut. But even if one agrees with that, McCain’s proposal to freeze the entire discretionary budget is different from a proposal to specifically "take money away from public schools," as the ad says. No dollars are being "taken away."

The "$200 billion to special interests" line is actually a new version of an old attack. It refers to the total cost, over five years, of McCain’s proposal to lower the corporate tax rate. The Tax Policy Center’s analysis of McCain’s plan estimates a $200 billion loss of revenue over the next five years. We’ve criticized the Obama campaign previously for unfairly implying that McCain’s plan would give tax breaks targeted to "oil companies." In this case, the campaign calls a change in taxes on all businesses a giveaway to "special interests." But the corporate tax rate is paid by any incorporated entity, a group that includes restaurant owners, garage mechanics and other small businesses that we suspect few would call a "special interest."

Burn It All Down

The ad claims that McCain "proposed abolishing the Department of Education." Not exactly. He didn’t formally propose such a move as much as it was an offhand suggestion, and that department wasn’t the only one he mentioned.

In December 1994, shortly after the Republicans captured control of the House of Representatives for the first time in 40 years, there was much discussion about shrinking the size of government and how Congress could do that. McCain had this exchange with CNN’s Frank Sesno on the topic:

Frank Sesno: Senator McCain, would you favor doing away with the Department of Housing and Urban Development or the Department of Energy?

Sen. John McCain: I would certainly favor doing away with the Department of Energy and I think that given the origins of the Department of Education, I would favor doing away with it as well.

We couldn’t find any other record of McCain mentioning this idea, and the quote is the only support the Obama campaign provided for its claim. Saying McCain "proposed" abolishing the department, as if it were a legislative initiative, is misleading.

–- by Justin Bank

Sources

Sesno, Frank. "The Late Edition." CNN, 11 Dec 1994.

Burman, Len, et al. "An Updated Analysis of the 2008 Presidential Candidates’ Tax Plans." Tax Policy Center, Revised 15 Aug 2008.

"Fiscal & Per Capita Impact of McCain’s Proposal to Freeze Discretionary Spending." Tennessee Education Association.