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McCain on Education

Specific Policy Positions

No Child Left Behind Calls the law "a good beginning" and believes that it is adequately funded, although he would funnel more of the money directly to school principals and tutoring services, bypassing state and local officials. Would also focus existing federal education dollars on expanded tutoring and school-choice programs for children in low-performing schools; alternative ways to recruit and certify teachers, and online education. Wants to change the way schools test special-education students and those learning English, and backs tests that measure students' academic progress over time. He has not rejected No Child's annual reading and math testing requirement or the law's tough consequences for schools in which children continue to struggle.

School choice Promises "school choice for all who want it" and champions charter schools and private-school vouchers, but his plan is limited to expanding the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program to provide vouchers to nearly 3,000 poor students in underperforming District of Columbia schools. Has long favored allowing states to operate their own voucher initiatives but opposes the creation of a federal program.


Teacher quality Advocates merit pay for teachers based primarily on raising students' test scores and bonuses for those who work in underprivileged schools; wants to open the profession to would-be teachers from other fields. Would redirect funds from other NCLB teacher programs and send the money to schools to focus on enhancing teachers' instructional strategies and ability to meet students' academic needs.

Key Advisers

McCain's team reflects his free-market approach to education. Longtime adviser Lisa Graham Keegan, who brought charter schools and high-stakes testing to Arizona as its top education official, is the public face and voice of McCain's education plan. Florida businessman and GOP fundraiser Phil Handy backed charters and letter grades for schools as former Gov. Jeb Bush's board of education chairman. Former Massachusetts Gov. Jane Swift, now an early-education consultant, and Virginia Walden Ford, head of D.C. Parents for School Choice and a board member of the Black Alliance for Educational Options, round out the campaign's education inner circle.


No Child Left Behind: Voted for the law in December 2001 even though he was disappointed that it lacked his national pilot program for private-school vouchers and full federal funding for the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. Believes that current NCLB funding is sufficient and has repeatedly voted against increasing its budget.


D.C. Opportunity Scholarships: Prepared, but did not offer, an amendment to the NCLB to establish a pilot program to offer private-school vouchers to disadvantaged D.C. students in struggling schools. He pushed for the program again in 2002 and supported its creation in 2004; he now wants to expand it.

ED-ACT: His 2001 Educating America's Children Today Act called for a three-year, nationwide school voucher demonstration project. The next year he offered the Educating Children for Tomorrow Act, which pared back the pilot to 10 states or localities and proposed to give school districts greater control of federal dollars and standard-setting.

Key Interest Groups

Business Coalition for Student Achievement: Led by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Business Roundtable, the coalition is a committed proponent of the NCLB. Like McCain, the employer group favors instituting performance pay for teachers based mostly on student test scores; it also backs expanding public school choice options and access to tutoring. McCain's grant program for online "virtual math and science academies" could answer its call for a better educated workforce.

D.C. Parents for School Choice: This 10-year-old grassroots organization shares McCain's passion for giving private- and religious-school vouchers to low-income parents whose children attend troubled District schools to send them to better schools.


NAACP: McCain disappointed the venerable civil-rights organization with his July 16 speech embracing school choice and vouchers, which the nonprofit has long rejected. But it does agree with McCain on the importance of holding schools accountable for educating all children.

This article appears in the August 2, 2008 edition of National Journal Magazine Contents.

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