School & District Management

McCain Emphasizes School Choice, Accountability, But Lacks Specifics

By David J. Hoff — February 15, 2008 6 min read
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Buried deep within the campaign Web site of Sen. John McCain, the Arizona Republican explains the principles that define his K-12 agenda: choice, accountability, and teacher quality.

“We must continue our efforts to set standards and hold schools accountable for their performance,” the likely GOP presidential nominee says in a 90-second video. “Our schools can and should compete to be the most innovative, flexible, and student-centered, not safe havens for the uninspired and unaccountable.”

“Let them compete for the most effective and character-building teachers, hire them, and reward them,” he adds in the statement. The text accompanying the video doesn’t include any specific proposals of what Sen. McCain would do as president to achieve those goals. On the stump and in debates, the candidate hasn’t said anything to explain how he would transform his ideas into policy.

But his 25-year congressional record and statements in his current campaign do give a glimpse of what Sen. McCain—better known for his views on defense and federal spending—might try to accomplish in education as president.

For much of the past decade, he has sponsored bills to underwrite private school choice, including the 2004 passage of a voucher program for students in the District of Columbia. He has supported efforts to boost federal funding for special education programs. In 2001, he voted for the No Child Left Behind Act and has voiced his support for it during his presidential campaign.

“No Child Left Behind was a good beginning, in my view,” Sen. McCain said at a Nov. 17 town meeting in North Haverhill, N.H., in a video posted on the YouTube Web site. “We now, after a number of years of examination and practice with it, know there’s some things that badly need fixing,” he said, specifically pointing to the law’s testing requirements for English-language learners and students with disabilities.

Against ‘Status Quo’

With more than half the states having held presidential primaries or caucuses, Sen. McCain has a commanding lead in the race for his party’s 2008 nomination. The Associated Press estimated last week that he had won 821 of the 1,191 delegates needed. Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee had 241 delegates, and U.S. Rep. Ron Paul of Texas had 14. All the other GOP contenders have dropped out of the once-crowded field. (“The Next Education President?,” Nov. 7, 2007 and, “Governors Cite Education Records,” Dec. 19, 2007.)

In a campaign in which the candidates of neither party have delved deeply into educational issues, Sen. McCain has been no exception. His campaign headquarters did not respond to requests for more details about the senator’s record and potential platform for education.

Throughout the campaign, Sen. McCain has focused mostly on foreign policy and defense, as well as eliminating spending in the form of congressional budget earmarks.

“I don’t think he has a strong track record of putting education at the top of his priorities,” said Frank Davidson, the superintendent of the 8,000-student Casa Grande Elementary School District in Casa Grande, Ariz.

What educational issues Sen. McCain has been involved in reflect the belief that the federal government should have a “very limited role in regard to K-12 education,” said Jaime A. Molera, a former state superintendent of schools in Arizona and now a member of the state board of education.

“What he would want is less of the [U.S.] Department of Education rule-making process that strangles states,” said Mr. Molera, who is a partner in the Molera Alvarez Group, a Phoenix-based government- relations and real-estate-development firm, and is supporting Sen. McCain’s campaign.

In line with his conservative principles, Sen. McCain has been a longtime advocate for private school choice and charter schools.

“Choice and competition is the key to success in education in America,” he said at a Dec. 9 debate among seven Republican presidential candidates, which was sponsored by Univision, the Spanish- language television network. “That means charter schools. That means home schooling. It means vouchers.”

The Candidates on Education

Our updated interactive guide provides side-by-side comparisons of the education positions of the Democratic and Republican contenders for president.

For several years in the 1990s, Sen. McCain sponsored versions of a bill to create a national pilot program for private school choice. The program would have given states grants to offer $2,000 vouchers that parents could use to pay for private school tuition.

When the Senate debated the No Child Left Behind law in 2001, Sen. McCain announced he would offer an amendment to authorize federal money for vouchers in the District of Columbia. He changed his mind after advocates for private school choice urged him to withdraw the plan.

Republicans later succeeded in 2004 by attaching the “opportunity scholarships” for the nation’s capital to the fiscal 2004 appropriations bill.

But Sen. McCain’s record isn’t completely conservative. Even though he has a reputation as a budget hawk, he has been willing to support efforts to increase federal education spending, especially for special education.

Mr. Davidson of the Casa Grande district said that the senator understands the argument made by many school officials that Congress has failed to finance the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act up to the authorized amount of 40 percent of the costs of complying with the statute. Sen. McCain regularly votes for amendments that call for funding the IDEA at the authorized level.

And unlike many conservatives, the senator supports the NCLB law’s requirements that states assess students in reading and mathematics in grades 3-8 and once in high school. He also supports efforts to hold schools accountable for raising student achievement.

“Some of my Republican colleagues are saying: ‘Well, we should scrap the whole thing,’ ” he said in the New Hampshire town meeting. “Why? Then you go back to the status quo.”

Sen. McCain added that choice, charter schools, and home schooling would provide the competition needed to encourage schools to improve.

Equity Issue?

Assuming he does become the GOP nominee, Sen. McCain could use the school choice issue to press his Democratic opponent— whether Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York or Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois—to offer proposals to improve the quality of education for children attending struggling schools.

“You really could make a real issue of school choice, and make it an equity issue,” said Terry M. Moe, a professor of political science at Stanford University and a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, a think tank associated with the university.

Blog: Campaign K-12

State policy reporter Michele McNeil provides regular coverage of what the presidential candidates are saying—or not saying—about education. • Go to Campaign K-12.

“That would push it in the Democrats’ face and say: ‘What are you going to do for these kids now?’ ” said Mr. Moe, a school choice supporter who has studied public perceptions of the issue.

The strategy could be especially effective with Hispanics, suggested Clint Bolick, the director of the constitutional-litigation center for the Goldwater Institute, a Phoenix-based think tank.

Combined with Sen. McCain’s support for comprehensive immigration reform and opposition to abortion—stands also popular among Hispanics—the Republican could draw significant number of votes from a constituency that traditionally votes for Democrats, said Mr. Bolick, who is a veteran advocate for private school choice.

Possible Pitfalls

One political expert said a school choice proposal in the presidential contest could attract support from Hispanics, much as African-Americans supported a school choice program in Milwaukee in the 1990s.

But if such a school choice proposal were too expansive, said Paul Manna, an assistant professor of government at the College of William and Mary, in Williamsburg, Va., potential Democratic supporters might not vote for Sen. McCain if they considered the proposal to be part of a larger conservative agenda against public schools.

Given Sen. McCain’s support for the NCLB law’s accountability measures, any proposal for choice also would raise the question of accountability for private schools, said Thomas Toch, a co-director of Education Sector, a Washington-based group that researches and analyzes education policy issues.

“The logic of NCLB is that all schools that are using public money should be held accountable,” said Mr. Toch. “He’s going to come to terms with the fact that the central element of school reform right now is to hold schools receiving public money accountable for their performance.”

A version of this article appeared in the February 20, 2008 edition of Education Week as McCain Emphasizes School Choice, Accountability, But Lacks Specifics

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