Choice and Teacher Quality Top McCain’s Education Agenda

By Alyson Klein — July 16, 2008 7 min read
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Sen. John McCain of Arizona pledged today to expand school choice programs and direct federal resources to alternative teacher-certification programs. As president, he said he would favor school-level funding for teacher merit pay, and make it easier for parents of students in struggling schools to gain access to tutoring services.

The speech to the annual meeting of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the nation’s oldest civil rights organization, offered the most detailed picture yet of the direction that the presumptive Republican presidential nominee would take federal K-12 education policy if he is elected to the White House. Sen. McCain had generally sidestepped the subject in favor of foreign policy and other issues that he has been more closely identified with throughout his Senate career.

“If I am elected president, school choice for all who want it, an expansion of opportunity scholarships, and alternative certification for teachers will all be part of a serious agenda of education reform,” Sen. McCain said.

In response to a question from an audience member at the Duke Energy Center here, Sen. McCain said he would “fully fund” programs under the No Child Left Behind Act. He said the federal school improvement law has to be “fixed,” not scrapped.

Sen. McCain, who has pledged to freeze domestic discretionary spending until he can conduct a top-to-bottom review of all federal programs, did not say that he would fund NCLB program up to the levels authorized by Congress, which has been a source of contention between Democrats and the Bush administration.

Support for Vouchers

Sen. McCain’s speech was met with a tepid reception from NAACP delegates, who on Monday night gave Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois a rousing reception as the presumptive Democratic nominee for president. Some members of the crowd were wearing Obama campaign buttons today, even while listening to Sen. McCain’s speech.

Sen. McCain promised to champion an expansion of school choice programs, holding up the District of Columbia Opportunity Scholarship Program, which provides vouchers to students from low-income families in the nation’s capital for private school tuition, including at religious schools, as an example. He used the issue to draw a contrast with Sen. Obama, who opposes federal funding for private school vouchers.

“In remarks to the American Federation of Teachers last weekend, Senator Obama dismissed public support for private school vouchers for low-income Americans as, ‘tired rhetoric about vouchers and school choice,’ ” Sen. McCain said. “All of that went over well with the teachers’ union, but where does it leave families and their children who are stuck in failing schools? ... When a public system fails, repeatedly, to meet these minimal objectives, parents ask only for a choice in the education of their children.”

Sen. McCain did not fully explain how the federal government would operate the school choice programs, or how he would sell the proposals to a Democratic-controlled Congress. President Bush has also proposed expanding school choice programs, most recently in his fiscal year 2009 budget. The proposal has fallen flat with lawmakers.

Although Sen. McCain did not offer details of how he would overhaul the NCLB law, he said he would work to streamline what he called the “needless restrictions” and bureaucracy that prevent some parents whose children attend schools that have missed achievement targets under the law from securing supplemental education services for their children.

“Under my reforms, moreover, parents will exercise freedom of choice in obtaining extra help for children who are falling behind,” Sen. McCain said. “As it is, federal aid to parents for tutoring for their children has to go through another bureaucracy. They can’t purchase the tutoring directly, without having to deal with the same education establishment that failed their children in the first place.”

Sen. McCain’s plan calls for allowing local supplemental service providers to receive certification directly from the federal government, and be able to market their services to parents. Some money from Title 1 grants to local districts would be then funneled straight to the providers, bypassing the local education agency.

Under the NCLB law, students can have access to free tutoring if their children attend schools that have failed to meet the law’s achievement targets for three years. But few parents take advantage of the services, in part, critics say, because school districts don’t make it clear that they are available.

Campaign K-12

For regular news and analysis on this year’s election and what’s at stake for schools, visit our blog Campaign K-12.

Sen. McCain also expressed support for alternative-certification programs for teachers, and said the federal government would target money to help school districts recruit students who graduated in the top 25 percent of their classes, or who have participated in programs such as Teach for America or the New Teacher Project.

“We should also offer more choices to those who wish to become teachers,” Sen. McCain said. “You can be a Nobel Laureate and not qualify to teach in most public schools today. They don’t have all the proper credits in educational ‘theory’ or ‘methodology’—all they have is learning and the desire and ability to share it. If we’re putting the interests of students first, then those qualifications should be enough.”

And Sen. McCain said he would seek to give principals more control over their schools’ budgets and provide funding for teachers to receive merit-pay bonuses based at least in part on student achievement. His plan also calls for providing high-performing teachers with incentive bonuses to teach in “the most challenging educational settings” and in hard-to-staff subject areas such as mathematics and science.

“The funds for these bonuses will not be controlled by faraway officials—in Washington, in a state capital, or even in a district office,” he said. “Under my reforms, we will entrust both the funds and the responsibilities where they belong—in the office of the school principal.”

That line met with some light applause, but also some soft boos.

“One reason that charter schools are so successful, and so sought-after by parents, is that principals have spending discretion,” Sen. McCain continued. “And I intend to give that same discretion to public school principals.”

Sen. McCain also would allocate $250 million for a competitive grant program to expand online learning opportunities, including Advanced Placement courses and tutoring services.

And he would create a $250 million scholarship program, to be administered by the U.S. Department of Education, which would offer scholarships of up to $4,000 for low-income students who want to enroll in online courses, including SAT- and ACT-prep courses.

Skeptical Reactions

Sen. McCain is expected to release more details on his education proposals in late summer or early fall, to coincide with the start of the 2008-09 school year.

Many of Sen. McCain’s proposals contrast sharply with the NAACP’s own education platform, said Derrick Johnson, who is president of the organization’s Mississippi chapter.

“School choice and school vouchers only limit access to public education,” he said in an interview.

Bettye Oldham, a retired teacher from Cincinnati, said she had mixed feelings about the merit-pay proposal.

“I think it’s a good idea if it’s run correctly,” she said. “But you can’t judge teachers the way you can judge manufacturing companies.” Some students come to school with “issues that prevent them from learning,” she said, which can make it harder for teachers to reach them.

Other educators and some parents in the audience were also skeptical of Sen. McCain’s school choice, as well as his alternative-certification proposals.

Beverly Williams, who teaches special education at an elementary school in Milwaukee, home to a state-funded private school voucher program, said that private schools in her district often turn away students with special needs, including those that have behavioral problems.

And she was concerned about Sen. McCain’s plan to expand alternative-certification programs, saying that even the brightest prospective teachers need to be trained in how to work in urban schools if they are going to be able to raise student achievement.

Karen Pulliam, an NAACP delegate and lawyer who served as a member of the Gary, Ind., school board from 2002 to 2006, praised Sen. McCain’s description of public schools and his proposal to embrace alternative-certification programs.

“I agree that we are dealing with an entrenched system right now that desperately needs reform,” she said. She said she liked that good teachers would be rewarded under Sen. McCain’s plan and hoped that the candidate would be able to change certification requirements so that “the talent will be able to get into the classroom.”

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