McCain Promises to ‘Shake Up’ Schools

By Alyson Klein & Mark Walsh — September 05, 2008 9 min read
U.S. Sen. John McCain waves to Republican delegates as he prepares to accept the GOP nomination.
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As the long race for the presidency enters its last two months, John McCain is offering positions on educational accountability and school choice that most of his fellow Republicans are likely to support. But those ideas don’t address the sharp divisions within the party over the No Child Left Behind Act, the centerpiece of President Bush’s agenda for K-12 education.

“Education is the civil rights issue of this century,” the Arizona senator said in his Sept. 4 speech accepting the Republican presidential nomination. “Equal access to public education has been gained. But what is the value of access to a failing school? We need to shake up failed school bureaucracies with competition, empower parents with choice, remove barriers to qualified instructors, attract and reward good teachers, and help bad teachers find another line of work.”

Sen. McCain’s statement on education drew some of the loudest cheers from the delegates in the convention hall here. But his remarks didn’t answer important questions about how he would craft policies to achieve those goals or alter the NCLB law and other existing federal laws. The NCLB law, in particular, faces opposition from small-government conservatives in the Republican Party, as well as teachers’ unions, others in the field, and pockets of the general public.

Sen. McCain, who hasn’t been active on education issues during almost 26 years in Congress, voted for the NCLB legislation when it passed Congress with hefty bipartisan majorities in 2001. The central mandates in the law are aimed at holding schools accountable for the academic achievement of their students.

Accountability Hawk

During the Sept. 1-4 Republican National Convention, education and many other policy issues took a back seat to the attention given to Sen. McCain’s running mate, first-term Gov. Sarah Palin of Alaska. (“Palin Takes Measured Tack On Alaska’s School Issues,” Septmber 10, 2008.)

Still, at several education policy events held around St. Paul and Minneapolis in conjunction with the GOP gathering, Sen. McCain’s supporters sought to position him as a champion of rigorous assessment and accountability in public education.

Education Week at the Conventions

For an archive of news and interviews from the Democratic and Republicans National Conventions, read Campaign K-12.

“I’m proud to be working for [someone] who backs NCLB and its accountability requirements,” Lisa Graham Keegan, the nominee’s top education adviser, told a well-attended policy forum on school issues in Minneapolis on Sept. 2.

U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings, who was a key architect of the No Child Left Behind law as a White House domestic-policy adviser during President Bush’s first term, said she thinks that Sen. McCain will continue to support the law if he is elected.

“I think he’s more a different kind of Republican than he is the federalist, abolish-the-Department-of-Education kind of Republican,” the secretary said in an interview in Minneapolis. “He voted for No Child Left Behind. He’s been supportive since. I think he knows what’s at stake here for our country.”

But Ms. Keegan and another top McCain education adviser, F. Philip Handy, who chaired the Florida state board of education during Gov. Jeb Bush’s tenure, were also careful to stress the nominee’s support for the idea of education as a partnership between states and the federal government.

Other Republicans echoed that sentiment.

“John McCain understands the office of the presidency,” Rep. Howard P. “Buck” McKeon of California, the ranking Republican on the House Education and Labor Committee, said in an interview. “He would not try to become school board president. He would become president of the United States. He would not try to tell us what time we should have recess, and what books we should read at what time.”

But Mr. McKeon also reiterated Sen. McCain’s support for a federal role in ensuring accountability and standards.

Ms. Keegan, a former state schools superintendent in Arizona, also emphasized that Sen. McCain has signed on to a statement by the Education Equality Project, a coalition of big-city mayors, urban superintendents, and civil rights activists, which suggests that schools are primarily responsible for student achievement and promotes greater accountability for teachers and public school choice.

In a recent speech, Sen. McCain challenged his Democratic opponent, Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois, to also sign the statement.

Sen. Obama, in his campaign platform, promises initiatives to recruit and retain teachers, using experiments with new ways of paying them; to expand access to charter schools; and to change in the NCLB law to improve the quality of testing schools do under the law and to increase funding for its programs. (“Top-Notch Education ‘A Moral Obligation,’ Obama Tells Throng,” Sept. 3, 2008.)

Quick Response

When asked how Sen. McCain would differ from President Bush on federal education policy, Ms. Keegan said her fellow Arizonan would seek immediate help for students in failing schools.

“If we find out a child is not doing well, that child immediately gets tutoring, that child gets an option for a new school,” she said. Under the NCLB law, students in schools that fail to make adequate yearly progress for two consecutive years or more have the option of transferring to another public school in the same district.

Sen. McCain also has called for expanding private school choice, particularly the federal voucher program for the District of Columbia, which gives students publicly funded tuition aid to attend secular and religious private schools.

And he has proposed allowing federal Title I money that is allocated for tutoring students who attend struggling schools to flow directly to parents, rather than to school districts.

But Republicans are deeply divided on how much of a role the federal government should play in setting policies on testing and accountability.

Nearly 70 House Republicans have signed on to a bill, introduced by Rep. Peter Hoekstra, R-Mich., that would permit states to opt out of the No Child Left Behind law’s accountability requirements. A similar measure introduced by Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., has garnered several key supporters in the Senate.

Rep. Hoekstra said more Republicans may feel free to question the NCLB law now that President Bush is about to leave office. In supporting the law in 2001, “many people in our party followed the president’s proposals; they followed it blindly, and they forgot what works,” he said in an interview on the convention floor.

“I think that’s one of the reasons we lost in 2006,” he added, referring to the GOP’s loss of control of Congress in the midterm elections. The Republican Party is typically the party of local control, he said, but “NCLB sent [voters] a totally different message.”

Rep. Hoekstra said he wasn’t sure where Sen. McCain stood on the question of how much of a role the federal government should have in education.

“I don’t know whether he would go as far I would go,” he said.

But Ms. Keegan said the GOP is prepared to unify around Sen. McCain’s education proposals. She participated in the meetings last month during which GOP members wrote the party’s draft platform—later adopted by the convention—and said she was surprised by the level of agreement in the room on education.

“I was amazed at how much coalescence there was around Sen. McCain’s education agenda,” Ms. Keegan said. “His agenda is the party’s agenda.”

Platform Planks

The education portion of the platform doesn’t mention the No Child Left Behind Act by name. Instead, it calls for “accountability for student achievement; periodic testing on the fundamentals of learning, especially math and reading, history and geography; transparency, so parents and the federal government know which schools best serve their students.”

That general language doesn’t endorse elements of the NCLB law that President Bush and Secretary Spellings have repeatedly said are its hallmarks. Those include requirements that states test students in reading and mathematics in grades 3-8 and once in high school, and that districts intervene in schools that are failing to make progress toward the goal of universal proficiency in reading and math by the end of the 2013-14 school year.

Ms. Keegan’s short speech to the convention on Sept. 2 illustrated how education was overshadowed by other issues and concerns here.

Although she is Sen. McCain’s most visible spokeswoman on education policy, Ms. Keegan only mentioned schools to say that the candidate had supported her when she ran for state schools chief as an advocate for school choice. The rest of her speech urged delegates to support victims of Hurricane Gustav on the Gulf Coast.

Concern over the storm had led Sen. McCain and the party to scale back the early events scheduled for the convention.

Rep. Michael N. Castle, R-Del., said neither Sen. McCain nor Sen. Obama has discussed education enough in the campaign.

“These individuals need to elevate that aspect of their campaign,” he said at an event sponsored by the National Education Association. The 3.2 million-member teachers’ union has endorsed Sen. Obama, but its leaders attended the GOP convention to meet with the 40 NEA members who were delegates to it.

Rep. Castle said he wasn’t expecting to hear much about the NCLB law during the convention. “Politically, it’s not popular,” he said.

‘Tarnishing the Brand’

Any chance that the convention here might have been a valedictory for President Bush on the federal school law was blown away by Hurricane Gustav, if not also by prevailing political winds. The president canceled his scheduled Sept. 1 appearance as the hurricane neared the Gulf Coast in Louisiana.

Secretary Spellings said in the interview that had Mr. Bush come to St. Paul, he would have hailed the success of the NCLB law.

“It is, if I do modestly say, one of the most significant domestic achievements that he has, if not the most significant domestic achievement,” said Ms. Spellings. “But I don’t want to be a Texas braggadocio.”

Ms. Spellings acknowledged that the law—the latest version of the Great Society-era Elementary and Secondary Education Act—has proved to be a punching bag on the 2008 campaign trail.

“It’s not a secret that lots of interest groups have spent millions and millions of dollars tarnishing the brand,” the secretary said. “They’re well organized; they’re well funded.”

“When people say let’s fix No Child Left Behind, I say that, too,” Ms. Spellings said. “That’s why we have reauthorizations in Washington every six years. To make the law better and to learn from our experience.”

First lady Laura Bush appeared to be the only speaker to refer to the No Child Left Behind law from the convention podium. Even she didn’t mention it by name.

“On an issue that’s close to my heart, President Bush initiated the most important education reforms in a generation, holding schools accountable and boosting funds for reading instruction,” she said in her Sept. 2 speech.

A version of this article appeared in the September 10, 2008 edition of Education Week as McCain Promises to ‘Shake Up’ Schools


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