A supporter of both school choice and federal funding for public schools, John McCain’s legacy in K-12 education also includes his backing for a landmark education law that became a signature accomplishment for his one-time rival for the presidency.
The longtime Republican senator from Arizona also supported merit pay for high-performing teachers, once telling an audience during a presidential campaign debate, “I don’t see why a good teacher should be paid less money than a bad senator.” The remark drew laughter from the crowd.
McCain died from cancer on Aug. 25 at the age of 81.
First elected to Congress in 1982 after surviving years of imprisonment and torture during the Vietnam War as a U.S. Navy pilot, McCain did not make education policy one of his signature issues while on Capitol Hill. And while he defended the No Child Left Behind Act, signed by President George W. Bush in 2002, McCain also said in subsequent years that the law needed to be revisited.
In addition to his broader support for choice, McCain pushed for additional education options for Native American children.
And, last year, he spoke out in favor of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which granted certain legal protections for children brought to the United States illegally. President Donald Trump has tried to rescind the program.
‘The Most Important Thing’
During two unsuccessful presidential campaigns in 2000 and 2008, McCain touted school choice as a way for parents to ensure their children escape struggling schools.
He called it “the most important thing” the nation could do with respect to education, and criticized opponents of this view who sought to curry favor with the teachers’ unions instead.
“When a public system fails, repeatedly, to meet these minimal objectives, parents ask only for a choice in the education of their children,” McCain said.
Just as McCain sometimes deviated from mainstream Republican Party thought, he did not always cast his support for choice in traditional terms.
In his first presidential bid, McCain drew a contrast between his support for choice and that of his rival Bush’s view. While Bush sought to pay for vouchers by gutting federal education aid, according to McCain, he would help pay for a $5.4 billion voucher program by “by eliminating corporate welfare doled out to the oil and gas industry, ethanol giants, and sugar barons.”
McCain’s backing for choice extended to children attending Bureau of Indian Education schools, which he said represented a broken promise to Native American children.
He worked with Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla., on legislation that would create education savings accounts for parents to pay for tutoring and other education services for children at those schools.
“We have no greater responsibility to our next generation than to help them prepare to compete in an increasingly competitive workforce, and this bill would provide Native American students the best opportunity to succeed in the classroom and beyond,” McCain said in a statement last year when he re-introduced the Native American Education Opportunity Act last year.
Fixed, Not Scrapped
McCain also threw his weight behind online education programs and alternative certification programs to train teachers. He once backed a plan to help schools recruit teachers from the ranks of college students who were in the top 25 percent of their graduating class.
McCain’s views evolved on the No Child Left Behind Act, which had the fervent backing of the Bush administration and was also shepherded through Congress by one of McCain’s friends on Capitol Hill, Democratic Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts.
In general, he remained a supporter of the law. But he also said at one point that the law should be changed to give English-language learners and students with disabilities more leeway with respect to academic progress.
“It was a great first beginning in my view. It had its flaws ... and we need to fix a lot of the problems. We need to sit down and reauthorize it,” McCain said of NCLB in his final 2008 presidential debate with Barack Obama.
McCain also tussled with Obama over a 2008 campaign ad in which the GOP nominee accused Obama of backing Illinois legislation to provide sex education to kindergarteners. Analysts questioned the accuracy of McCain’s attack.
During the NCLB era, he also criticized the federal bureaucracy for making it too difficult for parents to use tutoring money provided for under the law.
A version of this article appeared in the September 05, 2018 edition of Education Week as John McCain Backed School Choice, Native Education