The Magazine

The Education of John McCain

What he can--and can't--do for the public schools.

Mar 10, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 25 • By CHESTER E. FINN JR. and MICHAEL J. PETRILLI
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As the GOP debates whether John McCain is sufficiently Reaganesque, here's a point in the senator's favor: Like the Gipper, he doesn't consider education a top presidential priority. Indeed, McCain has said very little about the subject on the campaign trail, and his website barely touches it.

That's in vivid contrast to our last three presidents. Bush père campaigned to be the "education president" and swiftly convened the nation's first education summit. Clinton demonstrated his "third way" bona fides by pushing charter schools and school uniforms. And the incumbent Bush staked his claim to compassionate conservatism partly on his beloved No Child Left Behind act (NCLB) and its dramatic expansion of the federal role in education.

Such Oval Office advocacy and activism helped give life to some promising ideas--school choice and standards-testing-accountability in particular--but also created a myth and a monster.

The myth: The president can make our schools better. It's a myth that most citizens seem to believe. So do some candidates. Observe Senator Barack Obama stating, during a recent debate, with a straight face and sincere look, that "we should not accept a school in South Carolina that was built in the 1800s, where kids are having to learn in trailers, and every time the railroad goes by the tracks, the building shakes and the teacher has to stop teaching." Excuse us, Senator, but what exactly can you do for this school from the White House?

The monster: We now have a federal Department of Education meddling in schools across the land. Washington bureaucrats don't improve them but do monitor everything from teacher qualifications to reading curricula to discipline. Yet when it comes to what matters most--expectations for student learning--NCLB allows every state to grade itself, enabling most to set low standards and play games with test results.

Yes, Reagan also called for bold changes in K-12 schooling--and empowered his able education secretary, Bill Bennett, to do the same. His administration pushed for higher expectations, tougher standards, more parental choice, and a focus on character as well as sound curriculum. Yet this was mostly bully pulpit stuff; Reagan and Bennett knew that the real work of reform had to happen in states and communities, not in Washington.

McCain's instincts appear similar. It's hard to picture him spending much time visiting schools and reading to children. But he, too, could appoint an energetic education secretary (Mike Huckabee, perhaps?) and charge him/her with making some waves.

Meanwhile, the media will begin to press McCain to state specific positions on education, particularly on NCLB, whose reauthorization will be overdue by Inauguration Day. Other than indicating vague support for that law, for school choice, and for rewarding excellent teachers, it appears the Arizonan hasn't thought much about this (though he has a couple of astute advisers). So here's a suggestion.

Start by playing to your strengths, Senator, fitting education policy within three broad themes of your candidacy and worldview: keeping America confident in the face of Islamic terrorism, strengthening our ability to compete in a globalizing world economy, and fighting wasteful spending.

At the recent CPAC convention, McCain said he would defeat radical Islamists "by defending the values, virtues, and security of free people against those who despise all that is good about us." Yet how many young Americans truly understand and appreciate their country's "values" and "virtues"? McCain should argue that to fight and win a long-term war against extremism we must ensure that our children possess deep knowledge of U.S. history and America's role as freedom's champion. That means not letting history and civics get squeezed out of the curriculum by NCLB's obsession with reading and math scores. Students should be tested in history and civics, too, and schools with strong track records in these subjects should be cited as models.

When it comes to global competition, President McCain would rally U.S. workers to compete worldwide without yielding to the siren song of protectionism. But here, too, NCLB is weakening our human-capital development with its low (and uneven) standards and neglect of high-achieving students. McCain could change this by calling on governors to develop a set of common, rigorous expectations and assessments for all young Americans from Okeechobee to Walla Walla. And he could push Congress to rewrite NCLB so it focuses not just on academic stragglers but also on our savviest youngsters, too.

As for wasteful spending, President McCain could have a field day with a K-12 education budget that's ballooned by more than 40 percent since Bush 43 took office. He could give states and communities the authority to merge all their federal funds into one flexible stream (while being held to tougher, more consistent standards for student learning). Even better, he might pick a fight over the scores of Education Department programs that don't qualify as "effective" on the Office of Management and Budget tally.

Those are the girders under a strong education platform for the presumptive Republican nominee: a U.S. history "surge"; rigorous common expectations for all students; a renewed focus on helping able kids fulfill their potential; and the unmasking of wasteful, Washington-knows-best programs. There are plenty of other ideas worth supporting--targeted vouchers, aid for charter schools, incentives for districts to rid themselves of restrictive union contracts, and more. McCain is wading into a new issue area, however, and he needs to wet his feet before plunging all the way in. Happily for him, Obama's mushy education plan and flip-flopping on merit pay and vouchers give the Arizonan plenty of room to maneuver.

Like Reagan, McCain may never make education his top priority. But by picking a few key issues and using his power effectively, he just might be an education president anyhow.

Chester E. Finn Jr. is the author of Troublemaker: A Personal History of School Reform Since Sputnik (Princeton, 2008). He is a senior fellow at Stanford's Hoover Institution, where Michael J. Petrilli is a research fellow. They served at the U.S. Department of Education in the Reagan and George W. Bush administrations respectively.