The Case of the Missing Education Policy

From here, it seems like another world: Exit polling from the 2000 presidential election found that education ranked as one of voters' top concerns, second only to the economy. It marked a 40-year high in public interest in improving our schools.

But four years later, after a terrorist attack and two foreign wars, only 4 percent of Americans ranked the quality of our nations' schools as their biggest worry. Today, polls show over 80 percent of Americans once again believe education is an important priority, but rank it far below such issues as jobs, the Iraq War, and health care.

So in part, it's no surprise that while John McCain put forth an aggressive education platform when he ran in 2000, he hardly ever discusses the issue today. After all, George W. Bush's attempt to make the GOP the party of education reform has become a national laugh line. Criticizing No Child Left Behind is one of the easiest ways for American politicians from across the ideological spectrum to earn a round of applause on the stump.

Still, as McCain prepares to face off against either Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton, both of whom have presented detailed school-reform proposals, he has yet to move his discussion of education from conservative generalities to specific policy proposals. Sure, McCain nods toward introducing "competition" in public schooling and, like every national politician, he has become a proponent of educational "accountability." But generally, McCain's pronouncements on education seem calculated to buttress other aspects of his agenda, such as privatization of public services, opposition to abortion rights, and even support for immigration reform.

"In the entire NCLB era, education has not been an issue that McCain has put on his front burner," said Frederick Hess, director of education policy studies at the conservative American Enterprise Institute. "He's been clear that he's a strong supporter of the principle of school choice, but he's never sponsored any education legislation in a way that particularly spotlighted him."

Indeed, McCain's thin education record raises questions about whether he has rethought either the central idea or the specifics of his 2000 education platform: a $5.5 billion, three-year national experiment in private-school vouchers.

Since McCain first advocated vouchers, a growing body of research has confirmed that they do not improve students' academic performance or help close the achievement gap between affluent white children and poor children of color. Furthermore, the value of the vouchers McCain and other conservatives have proposed -- $2,000 -- is equal to less than half the average annual tuition at an American private school -- $4,689. That means vouchers won't give poor families many educational options beyond inner-city parochial schools, which are far less expensive and exclusive than secular prep schools focused on ensuring college admission. Voucher programs stack the deck against families who prefer a secular education for their children. In Milwaukee, the site of the largest private-voucher experiment to date, 102 of 120 participating schools are religious-affiliated.

In 2000, McCain wanted to fund his proposed federal voucher program through repealing sugar and ethanol subsidies. He has continued to argue against such subsidies but no longer links that platform to education. In fact, McCain's track record in the Senate shows a long history of voting against redirecting money toward public schools, although he did approve $75 million in funding for abstinence-only education.

McCain's record also sends mixed signals on the question of how federal education dollars should be allocated. Currently, NCLB threatens to withhold funding from schools that fail to live up to their state's academic standards. It's one of the most controversial parts of the bill, since it has the potential to suck resources from districts serving the neediest children, who tend to perform poorly on the standardized tests mandated by NCLB.

In 2000, McCain said he would fund schools through federal block grants that would be partially earmarked for teacher merit pay but would give states wide latitude in how and where to spend federal education dollars, regardless of academic performance. At a February 2000 campaign press conference, McCain said that if student performance was down, "accountability" would come at the ballot box as local voters chose state officials and school board members -- not from on high in Washington.

But today, the candidate at least rhetorically supports NCLB's goal of giving Washington the power to withhold school funding. "He believes all federal financial support must be predicated on providing parents the ability to move their children, and the dollars associated with them, from failing schools," the McCain Web site says, eliding the equally controversial issue of whether test scores should determine school funding.

On the hot-button cultural issues that often bleed into our national education debate, McCain tends to be a classic social conservative. He has supported not just abstinence-only education but also school prayer and posting the Ten Commandments in school buildings. At a Republican primary debate last June at Saint Anselm College, McCain said he personally believed in evolution but thought it should be taught alongside creationism and intelligent design in science classes.

Where the GOP nominee strays from the conservative fold is on "English only" policies. That's not surprising, given McCain's support for comprehensive immigration-reform and a path toward citizenship for undocumented workers. McCain supports bilingual education, and in 2006, he voted in favor of Sen. Ken Salazar's amendment to the immigration reform package, which would have required government agencies to provide translations of ballots, registration forms, and all other paperwork into languages other than English.

Another unexpected aspect of McCain's education record is his support for a national tutoring program that would link retirees with struggling students. McCain has long been interested in expanding opportunities for national service, writing a 2001 Washington Monthly essay on the topic. But he has not spoken about the idea on the campaign trail this year.

Experts assume McCain will roll out a more detailed education white paper during the general election, but caution against taking it word for word.

"There's very little incentive for McCain to get overly specific on this," said AEI's Hess, noting that only 5 to 8 percent of Americans name education as their No. 1 public-policy priority today. "I suspect he'll come out on some form of school choice, I suspect he'll use it as part of his urban outreach. But whatever McCain, or frankly either of the Democrats, puts out on education, I have little confidence that it would look anything like a governing document."

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