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 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.