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Federal Opinion

Teachers! McCain’s Your Guy!

By Richard Whitmire — August 05, 2008 4 min read
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This is a terribly awkward issue to raise at this moment, but the 3,000 teachers from the American Federation of Teachers who recently left Chicago after their convention made the same mistake as the 9,000 teachers from the National Education Association who met earlier in Washington. They ... well, they endorsed the wrong guy for president.

The top goal of both teachers’ unions is driving a stake into the federal No Child Left Behind Act. That stake, however, is far more likely to get pounded in by John McCain than by Barack Obama, who won the overwhelming endorsement of both unions.

Wait, you’re thinking, even if that’s true (and I’ll shortly explain why it is true), surely the other education positions embraced by McCain are so objectionable, at least from the perspective of a teachers’ union, that a McCain endorsement would be unthinkable.

True, the presumptive Republican nominee appears ill-suited to serve as a poster child for either the NEA or the AFT. His top education aide says he won’t raise federal spending on education. He loves school choice in all forms. And he’s a big fan of performance pay.

Let’s take these one at time. Even if McCain wins, the odds of the Republicans regaining control of Congress are nil. Therefore, Democrats will control the purse strings. So much for flat education spending.

As for school choice, vouchers are dead. Period. Good idea on paper that never worked out in practice because there were never enough effective schools where parents could cash in their vouchers. And if charter schools are your school choice flavor, Obama appears to be a fan of charters. That makes McCain and Obama a wash on this issue.

Now, performance pay. In case you missed the big satellite speech from Montana that Obama delivered to the 9,000 NEA teachers meeting in Washington, the Democrats’ presumptive nominee talked up performance pay (which elicited boos from the audience). Again, a wash between Obama and McCain.

Obama appears gifted at saying unkind things about NCLB, at least on the surface.

That leaves only the big issue, No Child Left Behind, the school accountability system so despised by most teachers. Obama appears gifted at saying unkind things about NCLB, at least on the surface. Before the NEA, he drew raucous cheers by saying children were being robbed of music and art. Somehow, the teachers took those as code words for killing NCLB. But why? The law says nothing about excluding art and music; that’s a school-level decision. Obama knows that.

Later, at the AFT convention, he was drawing huge applause bashing NCLB again, this time saying that the way to provide a better education “is not just by applying a single, high-stakes standardized test.” Obama is a policy guy. He knows there’s no big, scary federal test, just as he knows the law says nothing about music and art. The law relies on tests created by the states. In fact, he followed that up by saying, “It doesn’t mean our kids can’t take a standardized test once in a while, it just means it has to be supplemented” by other teaching.

Actually, that sounds a lot like NCLB, which encourages states to leverage high standards matched by rigorous accountability. That’s how Massachusetts pushed its way to the top of the nation’s school achievement list, leaning on standardized tests once in a while to keep tabs on progress. The unique part of the federal law is its accountability-by-the-numbers, making sure that poor and minority children aren’t left behind.

Still believe Obama will gut NCLB? Imagine this scene: President Obama is sitting in the Oval Office, and his secretary of education reports in with this recommendation: Mr. President, because 54 percent of black 4th graders scored below basic on reading in 2007 (actual fact), we think it would be wise to do away with accountability-by-the-numbers. Who needs to hear that kind of bad news?

Maybe you can imagine Obama agreeing; I see him sacking the secretary.

As for McCain, I attended a press briefing not long ago by former Arizona schools chief Lisa Graham Keegan, McCain’s top education adviser. Although the McCain campaign talks strong on school accountability, she had nothing good to say about the NCLB law. All children proficient by 2014? Let’s stop pretending. The federal government sanctioning state schools? Not our way of doing business.

Many conservatives have long disliked the law’s federal intrusions. McCain is not going to stand in their way. It’s not his issue. Under a President McCain, it would only be a matter of time before NCLB got renamed and pushed back to the states.

A few weeks ago, I listened to an Obama education adviser, Mike Johnston, brief the press. Obama has “no intention” of backing off tested accountability on math and reading, said Johnston. While a President Obama might rename the law and offer some additional measurements of school performance, odds favor his disappointing the teachers’ unions.

Teachers! McCain is your guy! Never mind. They’ve all gone home.

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