Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., unveiled an $18 billion education plan last week in Manchester, N.H. During a brief conference call with South Carolina reporters, Obama said he’s put in place offsets to account for the new initiatives.

The plan includes salary hikes and improved training for teachers, universal early education, and a focus on best practices, particularly for high school programs.

“I’m trying to create a system that follows through on promises the federal government has already made,” he says, in reference to the monetary failings of President Bush’s key education proposal. “We’re going to have to make No Child Left Behind more than just a slogan.”

Obama highlights a number of failings in NCLB, including a focus on penalizing troubled schools, efforts by some districts to chase off delinquents who drag down the average, and the argument that teachers are teaching from the mandated achievement tests, bypassing valuable lessons on science and technology. The question in South Carolina is whether other states will be required to beef up their standards to get in line with the South Carolina’s Palmetto Achievement Test, considered one of the more arduous in the country. Though he said that he felt every parent should know their child is learning what they need to know, he wasn’t definitive on a national test.

“South Carolina should be proud that they’ve set high standards,” he says. “But you’ve got to make sure you’re following (those standards) with resources.”

A main focus of Obama’s plan is early childhood education. He’d expand federal assistance to pre-K programs and assistance to parents for child care costs.

“This is probably the most important thing we can do to close the achievement gap,” he says.

Teacher incentives are also a big part of Obama’s proposal. He’d provide college grants for students who promise a career in education and he’d offer voluntary national certification for collegiate programs to ensure they’re up to snuff. New teachers would be paired with mentors, compensated for their aid. And teachers would get additional incentives for working in high-needs communities.

“We want to reward effective teachers for taking on challenging assignments,” he says.

Obama again referenced the stretch of struggling schools along Interstate 95 through South Carolina, known as “The Corridor of Shame.” While he noted the antiquated buildings and trailer-park classrooms, Obama’s plan doesn’t explicitly address a primary concern for these rural schools — infrastructure. Though, to be fair, neither do other leading candidates.

Seeing the “tax and spend” complaints coming a mile away, Obama says that he’s found offsets for all of these programs. For example, NASA’s manned space exploration would be delayed five years to help pay for the early childhood aspect of the program.

But, he notes, “Money alone is not going to solve the problem. Ultimately, a parent still has to be a parent.”

Obama’s Democratic opponents for the nomination have similar visions for educational reform. Sen. Hillary Clinton of New York wants to put $10 billion toward universal preschool, supports added resources for first-time parents, and programs targeted at reengaging at-risk youth with mentors, internships, and college assistance. Former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina also presses for preschool for four-year-olds, teacher incentives, expanded college opportunities, and a massive overhaul of NCLB.

The GOP frontrunners, on the other hand, have surprisingly little information on their websites about education reform. Former Mass. Gov. Mitt Romney has a few quotes about putting principals in charge of schools, former N.Y. Mayor Rudy Giuliani says parents should be in charge with school choice, and Sen. John McCain of Arizona explains his support of the second amendment, but there’s no info on education reform. With no fix in the classroom, the kids may need those guns.