McCain's Opportunity to Provide a "Change We Can Believe In"

During his address at the 99th annual NAACP Convention earlier this month, U.S. Sen. John McCain had an opportunity to make education reform a key issue in this year’s presidential campaign. But, to paraphrase the immortal Don Adams (aka Maxwell Smart), McCain “missed it by that much.”

McCain correctly fingered the fundamental hurdle to education reform when he said, “When a public school fails … parents ask only for a choice in the education of their children … No entrenched bureaucracy or union should deny parents that choice and children that opportunity.”

However, he fell short on delivering an adequate solution. Instead of putting forth a bold vision for education in America that addressed the reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) and recounted the burgeoning consensus on school choice, McCain offered the standard fare about merit pay, alternative certification, and devoting a few federal shekels to develop virtual charter schools.

McCain also failed to identify the scope of the problem. As the backdrop for his remarks, McCain should have made mention of the April Associated Press report that found 17 of America’s 50 largest cities had public high school graduation rates under 50 percent, with Detroit’s graduation rate at a jaw-dropping less than 25 percent.

McCain may have followed up by asking rhetorically, “And who’s running those school systems?” Why, U.S. Sen. Barack Obama’s good friends, of course, the teachers unions and the big city mayors.

Since McCain failed to set the trap, Obama has to this point been able to get away with tepid rehashed hash when he explains to low-income families in big cities why it is fine for their children to be relegated to schools everyone knows will fail them while his own daughters attend the prestigious (and private) University of Chicago Lab Schools.

But the opportunity nevertheless remains McCain’s.

In a one fell swoop, McCain can simultaneously excite his party’s conservative base, put Obama on the defensive on the domestic front, and, most importantly, facilitate the needed change in education policy in this country to truly give young people in urban centers hope for their future.

A federal solution?

My fellow strict constructionists correctly argue that the U.S. Constitution provides no role for the federal government in education. That responsibility rests with the states.

However, the reality is that the federal government will spend nearly $40 billion on primary and secondary education this year–approximately 30 percent of which will be dedicated to help school districts meet the mandates under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).

So side-stepping the constitutionality debate for a moment, here’s what McCain should proffer:

  1. Scrap NCLB. It was well-intended legislation designed to infuse performance standards into school systems that had eschewed all measures of accountability. However, I believe Samuel Johnson once observed where the road paved with good intentions leads. NCLB is federal cookie-cutter legislation with a plethora of unfunded mandates and too many trap doors along the pathway to true choice.

Scrapping NCLB would not only invigorate some base GOP voters, it would allow McCain to pick off Independents, particularly educators, who are similarly frustrated with NCLB albeit for different reasons.

Instead of proposing tinkering where the federal government fundamentally overreached, McCain has the chance to change the incentives that dangle at the end of the federal government’s purse-strings and to make Obama look positively status quo in so doing.

  1. Set up a Stafford Loan-type program for targeted elementary and high schools. Colleges and universities compete for students. We know this. We also know students can take their federal Stafford loan money and go to any school they want, public or private, which accepts such financing (which is virtually all colleges and universities). And we know America’s collegiate system was, at least until recently, the envy of the world.

So why not apply this same approach to elementary and high schools?

Investing in Students, not Failing Systems

Stripping out the federal dollars for IDEA compliance leaves approximately $28 billion of the $40 billion the federal government spends on K-12 education to set up a no-interest (indexed to inflation) loan program for parents of students in failing schools.

Begin by making the money available to parents of students in schools where more than 75 percent of students test below proficiency in reading and math, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) tests in 4th and 8th grades.

This way, the federal government stops investing in systems, particularly failing systems, and start investing directly in students. It also gets the federal government out of the business of being the national hall monitor for our schools, which in turn prevents the imposition of more one-size-fits-all mandates.

Since the ticket to effectively competing in our global, digital economy is no longer a high school diploma but, at minimum, a bachelor’s degree, loans taken out for primary and secondary education could be deferred without interest if the student goes on to college.

Proven Response

Those who argue parents won’t access such low-interest loan dollars if they are made available have not been watching the response to school choice programs in big cities where, without exception, exponentially more families apply for scholarships than there are scholarships available, even when the scholarships don’t cover the full tuition costs.

In Cleveland, for instance, a family with a household income below 200 percent of the federally defined poverty line is given preference for scholarships of up to $1,875 annually. In 2002, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled Cleveland’s citywide voucher program constitutional (Zelman v. Simmons-Harris), 96 percent of the 3,700 children participating in the choice program elected to attend religious schools. The scholarship amount of $1,875 does not cover the annual tuition costs at very many private or religious high schools in metropolitan areas.

But school choice is in such demand that low-income families with children in failing public schools are routinely willing to find ways to make up for any financial shortfall in order to leverage state dollars to send their children to better schools.

In Cleveland and elsewhere, they must produce the money up front. This provides useful insight into the likely response from parents if given the opportunity to instead finance (interest-free) their child’s education at a school of their choosing.

Admittedly, $28 billion is not enough money to provide no-interest loans to the estimated 11.5 million children in failing public K-12 schools nationwide. However, it would represent a seismic shift in how we think about education in this country. It would also necessitate the positive system changes that inevitably come from competition for students–and the dollars that follow them.

Embarking on this bold course of action on education will not spell victory for McCain in Chicago, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, or Detroit.

But here’s what it would do: it would link the GOP to the hopes and dreams low-income families have for their children, giving the GOP brand some much needed re-definition in the public’s mind; it would cut into the Democrats’ base voters; it would make the Democrats defend systems that are indefensible; and it would prevent millions of children from being permanently relegated to second-class citizen status in this country, the inevitable result of being forced into schools that do not educate.

Applying a modified collegiate model to the failing K-12 schools in this country would truly be “change we can believe in”.