Education is not an issue most people usually associate with Republican presidential candidate John McCain.
But last week, the Arizona senator sought to offer voters a more complete picture of his views on schools, outlining an agenda of higher pay for “master teachers,” school vouchers, and fewer “strings” attached to federal dollars designated for K-12 education.
He also used the occasion, a Feb. 10 speech in Spartanburg, S.C., to contrast his approach with that of his chief rival for the Republican nomination, Gov. George W. Bush of Texas.
“Governor Bush and I have a serious difference of opinion on the issue of school choice,” Sen. McCain said. “He believes we should pay for school vouchers by taking money already dedicated to public education. I believe we should fund choice by eliminating corporate welfare doled out to the oil and gas industry, ethanol giants, and sugar barons.”
Other than a plan announced last fall for a federal voucher experiment, Mr. McCain has spent little time in the campaign talking about education. Instead, the senator has focused on campaign-finance reform and foreign and defense policy.
Mr. Bush, on the other hand, delivered three detailed policy addresses on education last fall.
But last week, Mr. McCain talked broadly about his views on education while also digging in with some specifics.
He proposed converting federal aid under the Elementary and Secondary Education Act—about $13 billion a year—directly to school districts in the form of block grants.
He also proposed a new block grant program that would provide higher pay for so-called master teachers, though a campaign adviser said he could not yet provide details on how much it would cost.
“A highly compensated master teacher in every school would provide a vital incentive for good teachers to remain in the profession rather than having to leave for financial reasons,” Mr. McCain said in his speech.
And he reiterated his proposal for a $5.4 billion school voucher plan that would be paid for by closing certain industry tax breaks.
“The most important thing we can do, my friends, to improve education in America is to commit ourselves to the cause of school choice,” he said.
Since his impressive victory in the New Hampshire Republican primary last month, the senator has become a serious challenger to Mr. Bush for the GOP nomination. The next big test of their relative strength will come at the end of this week, in the South Carolina primary on Feb. 19.
Former Rep. Frank Riggs, a California Republican who is one of Mr. McCain’s education advisers, argues that there are clear philosophical and policy differences between the two leading GOP contenders.
“We believe that Governor Bush wants a lot more federal control [of education] than Senator McCain wants,” said Mr. Riggs, who chaired the House Subcommittee on Children, Youth, and Families in 1997 and 1998. He points, for example, to Mr. Bush’s proposed requirement that in return for federal funds, states demonstrate that they have closed the achievement gap between high- and low-performing students.
Mr. Bush has argued that his plan would provide states and school districts unprecedented levels of freedom and flexibility, but that the federal government must demand results in return.
"[Senator McCain’s] plan has no accountability,” said Scott McClellan, a spokesman for the Bush campaign. “It continues to allow federal dollars to follow failure.”
The two candidates also disagree on when a voucher program should take effect. Under the Bush proposal, if a poor-performing school failed to turn around after three years, the federal Title I money that that school received would be given to parents to use to attend another school, whether public or private. Sen. McCain says his proposal would make vouchers available immediately.
Nina Shokraii Rees, a senior analyst at the Heritage Foundation and an adviser to the Bush campaign, argues that Mr. McCain’s record on education pales in comparison with that of the Texas governor.
“Senator McCain has never run a campaign that’s made education a priority,” she said. “Bush has a well-thought-out policy agenda” on education.
During his 18 years in Congress, Mr. McCain has not been especially attentive to education issues. He is much better known as an expert on military matters and as a crusader against “pork barrel” spending and what he describes as a corrupt campaign-finance system.
Nevertheless, he has been involved in several school initiatives over the years and has a voting record that reveals a largely conservative education philosophy.
Last year he drafted a broad-based education bill—S 667, the Educating America’s Children for Tomorrow Act—that contained voucher and block grant proposals similar to those he is now proposing as part of his campaign. No action has been taken on the measure.
His speech last March 18 introducing the bill was unsparing in its criticism of current federal policy.
“The time has come for us to free our schools from the shackles of the federal government and give them the freedom and the tools to educate children,” he said.
One of the senator’s most notable forays into education policy was his scrutiny of the federal E-rate program, which provides discounts on Internet access and other telecommunications services to schools and libraries.
Mr. McCain, who oversees telecommunications as the chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, originally opposed the creation of the program, though his criticism had more to do with the way it was designed than with the purpose of the initiative. He argued that the funds for the program were derived from what he described as a tax on phone users.
He also sponsored the Troops to Teachers program, reauthorized last year, which provides money to encourage retired military personnel to take up second careers as educators. The program served as the model for a component of President Clinton’s proposed fiscal 2001 budget, which contains a $25 million measure intended to recruit civilian professionals into teaching.
As for education funding, Mr. McCain’s record shows that he supported earlier Republican efforts to cut federal spending. In 1996, for example, he was among 25 senators who voted against a bipartisan amendment that restored $1.7 billion in education aid.
A version of this article appeared in the February 16, 2000 edition of Education Week as McCain’s Views on Schools Becoming Clearer