Sen. Barack Obama unveiled an $18 billion education plan today 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 the focus on penalizing failing 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, missing 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 test, considered one of the more difficult 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 quality child care.

“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 pledging to a teaching career and he’d offer a voluntary national certification program for collegiate programs to ensure they’re up to snuff. New teachers would be paired with mentors, who would be compensated for their aid. And teachers would get additional incentive for working in high-needs communities.

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

Obama again referenced the failings of the stretch of schools along Interstate 95 through South Carolina, referred to 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 — facilities and infrastructure.

Seeing the “tax and spend” complaints coming a mile away, Obama says that he’s found offsets for all of these programs. For example, a delay in NASA’s space exploration campaign 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.”