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McKeon Backs McCain’s NCLB Plans

By Alyson Klein — September 04, 2008 3 min read
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If Sen. John McCain wins the White House, he’ll have an ally for his education agenda in Rep. Howard P. “Buck” McKeon of California, the top Republican on the House Education and Labor Committee.

McKeon was very “on message” in an interview with Campaign K-12 yesterday. Much of what he said about the future of the No Child Left Behind Act and school policy mirrored what Lisa Graham Keegan, McCain top education adviser, told me Tuesday about McCain and the Republican agenda.

Like McCain, McKeon supports federal accountability and assessment, but also stressed state’s rights and local control, at least rhetorically. When I asked him how he might square those priorities with the federally driven accountability system at the center of the NCLB law, he mentioned a bill he introduced that would give states more flexibility in spending federal education funds—something McCain hasn’t mentioned yet. (But it wouldn’t surprise me if it became part of his education agenda.)

Like McCain, McKeon wants students in struggling schools to have more immediate access to supplemental services and school choice. He said he tried to get those provisions into a draft NCLB reauthorization bill that he crafted with Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., the chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee.

And like McCain (and most Republicans) McKeon spoke enthusiastically about the need for performance pay for teachers.

McKeon also said that McCain and his Democratic rival, Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois, differ on how much of authority the federal government should have over education—something Keegan told me on Tuesday.

“John McCain understands the office of the presidency,” McKeon said. “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. When I hear the Democrats talk, it’s more the getting into the details and more micro-managing out of Washington.”

If McCain is in the White House, McKeon said the reauthorization bill would look “much like it would have been if we hadn’t lost the majority” after the 2006 election. If McKeon had kept his job as chairman of the House education committee, he would have included growth models and flexibility for states in measuring the progress of students in special education and English-language learners in any plan to reauthorize the law.

Rep. McKeon complained about the lack of bipartisan cooperation in crafting that draft bill, which was released last August and faced immediate criticism from every corner of edupolicyworld. McKeon said he had a few major points he was trying to get Rep. Miller to sign onto, including on tutoring services. Miller did not “move one iota” on those proposals, he said.

“We just got to the point where we couldn’t make any more progress,” he said.

McKeon said he isn’t sure that the bipartisan coalition that came together to pass the NCLB law in 2001 will stay intact if the Democrats remain in charge of Congress (almost all political experts predict they will). Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., and Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., the chairmen of the education panels, weren’t able to get a bill passed this Congress because “the unions hamper what they can do,” McKeon said.

I reminded McKeon that NCLB faces opposition from some folks in his own party, including Rep. Pete Hoekstra of Michigan, a member of the education panel, who has introduced a bill that would permit states to opt-out of NCLB’s accountability requirements. McKeon said that he is still unwilling to support that approach.

Hoekstra “wants to take off all the regulations and just give [school districts] the money,” McKeon said. But, he said, as long as the federal government is using taxpayers’ money to finance public education, it has a right to ask for results.

McKeon acknowledged that President Bush isn’t going out with the highest approval ratings, but he said he believed that history will vindicate him—and the NCLB law.

“If an objective person were to go back and really look at” the rise in test scores, they would have to admit the law is working, he said. “The problem is it takes so long to evaluate” its effectiveness, since a student spends 13 years in elementary and secondary school.

He said NCLB has become a punching bag especially for the Democrats because “it was the GOP that did it, and they don’t want to give us credit for it,” he said.

McKeon wasn’t always such a big McCain guy. Back during the primary, he was a huge supporter of Gov. Mitt Romney of Massachusetts, who, perhaps more than any other candidate in the Republican party, championed NCLB and accountability on the campaign trail.

--Alyson Klein

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