John McCain does not want to be the next education president.
Unlike president George W. Bush, who made education reform a centerpiece of his 2000 campaign, or Senator Barack Obama, who has served on the Senate education committee and laid out a detailed plan of what he would do in the White House, Senator John McCain is not positioning himself as the country’s next Education President. He hasn’t made education a priority issue during his Senate career. His campaign has downplayed education as a big issue for the November election, compared to the war in Iraq and the economy. He named his education adviser, Lisa Graham Keegan, months after Obama had named his. He has yet to lay out a detailed education plan, and he waited until July to give a major education speech (in front of the NAACP).
While Obama has skittered dangerously close to taking positions many Democrats and educators oppose—most notably supporting charter schools—McCain’s education game plan basically comes straight from the traditional Republican playbook.
To some, McCain’s approach appears careless, but it may be a calculated decision. Writing a detailed (but unfunded) education plan isn’t that hard, after all. Anyone can do it. The same goes for giving a speech. And McCain knows that his strengths lie elsewhere.
So what would McCain do about education if he landed in the White House? In essence, McCain—like everyone else—would retain the core of NCLB but make several modifications. Nothing as dramatic as rolling back the annual state testing requirement, but more along the lines of finding better ways to measure student achievement and using federal grants to encourage more sophisticated and broader measures—including measuring gifted students’ progress, perhaps as an additional subgroup. All pretty much standard revisions.
Of McCain’s ideas for NCLB, there are a few distinctive elements. His advisers have talked about making school choice and tutoring available to all families immediately, instead of the delayed sanctions under the current law. McCain has also discussed speeding up interventions in failing schools.
Where McCain differs most from his opponent is his desire to get rid of the current system of uniform salary schedules and seniority-based pay raises. McCain’s much more comfortable with individual pay increases based on student achievement than Obama is.
Although McCain supports private school vouchers, his advisers say he isn’t planning to push for them to be federally funded. His emphasis on choice, however, is a stark contrast with Obama’s position; Obama has stated repeatedly that he is opposed to vouchers. (Not that anyone predicts a major private school voucher program coming from Congress anytime soon.)
McCain is also much less likely to put a substantial amount of new money into his education plan—or at least he’s being honest about the unlikelihood of that happening. In fact, McCain has voted against fully funding NCLB, according to a report from the National Education Association. Instead, he would redistribute funding in the current federal education budget, prioritizing charter schools, for one thing.
When McCain ran for President in 2000, he made education a major part of his platform and proposed a $5.5 billion private school voucher demonstration project. Things have changed in eight years. Now, you’ll hear much less from him about education than from Obama. But McCain’s ideas might be more realistic, financially, at least, and more transformative in terms of altering the status quo, than his Democratic opponent’s.