John McCain, a longtime Arizona senator who championed school choice and defended a landmark education law signed by a one-time political rival, died on Saturday at the age of 81.
As a two-time Republican candidate for president and for years perhaps the nation’s most famous member of Congress, McCain defended the No Child Left Behind Act, the landmark federal education law signed by President George W. Bush in 2002—calling it a “major milestone.” However, as time went on, he also understood its shortcomings and unintended consequences, and called for the law to be revised. McCain also supported merit pay for “master teachers,” and fought to expand choice, specifically for students enrolled in Bureau of Indian Education Schools.
First elected to the House 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 in Congress. But he did emphasize several of his views on the subject during his presidential runs in 2000 and 2008.
During his 2000 GOP presidential primary battle with eventual winner George W. Bush, McCain said that, “The most important thing we can do, my friends, to improve education in America is to commit ourselves to the cause of school choice.”
In keeping with other parts of his political career, however, McCain was not afraid to break from GOP orthodoxy on education.
For example, in 2000 McCain drew a distinction between himself and Bush, arguing that while Bush wanted to fund vouchers by stripping money from public schools, he wanted to do so “by eliminating corporate welfare doled out to the oil and gas industry, ethanol giants, and sugar barons.” That was the basis of his $5.4 billion federal voucher plan.
And eight years later during his contest with Barack Obama, he pledged to “fully” fund NCLB education programs, a promise not echoed by other Republicans, although he also proposed covering much of the law’s funding into block grants for districts.
While McCain expressed support for NCLB over the years, he also said in one interview that he thought it should put more emphasis on math and science. He also suggested that there be more flexibility in the law for measuring academic progress of English-language learners and students with disabilities. One common refrain from McCain was that the law should be “fixed” and not scrapped.
In 2008, McCain told the NAACP’s Cincinnati chapter that he would help provide “school choice for all who want it.” He also criticized policy positions that went over well with teachers’ unions but that left students and their parents without options, and stressed how the federal bureaucracy made it harder for students to use money for tutoring services.
“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.
McCain backed alternative certification for educators, as well as additional federal aid to help districts recruit teachers from among college students who graduated in the top 25 percent of their classes. He also supported online learning programs.
In recent years, McCain also worked with Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla., to introduce legislation that would provide education savings accounts to Native American students attending schools run by the Bureau of Indian Education. The accounts could be used for private school tuition, textbooks, and other education expenses.
“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 at the time.
Last year, McCain criticized President Donald Trump’s move to rescind the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, saying that children illegally brought to the U.S. “should not be forced to return to a country they do not know.”
Like Bush and others, McCain also placed the issue of education in momentous terms, saying at one point that “education is the civil rights issue of this century.”
‘Stands Above the Rest’
Upon news of his death, tributes poured in from around the education world, including from Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos:
My deepest sympathies & sincere prayers go out to Cindy & the entire McCain family. (2/2)
— Betsy DeVos (@BetsyDeVosED) August 26, 2018
Two of his Senate colleagues who lead the chamber’s education committee, Sens. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee and Patty Murray of Washington state, said he was an inspiration to them and others for his leadership:
There is usually one U.S. Senator who stands above the rest and for the last several years that has been @SenJohnMcCain. His character, courage and devotion to our country have been an example for all of us. Honey and I send our prayers to Cindy and the entire McCain family.
— Sen. Lamar Alexander (@SenAlexander) August 26, 2018
I will never forget my time working with John in the Senate. Whether it was side-by-side, or on opposite sides, he earned my respect every time and I truly believe the Congress and our country are both better places for his life’s work.
— Senator Patty Murray (@PattyMurray) August 26, 2018
Forrmer Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings, Bush’s second secretary of education, praised him for his work:
We have lost a true national treasure who showed us all what public service means. I am honored to have know Sen. John McCain and worked with him on education and immigration.
— Margaret Spellings (@MargaretEdu) August 26, 2018
Photo: Republican presidential candidate Sen. John McCain speaks during a rally in Henderson, Nev., in 2008. (Isaac Brekken/AP-File)
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