The Corner

McCain on Education

In his NAACP speech today, Senator McCain said this:

After decades of hearing the same big promises from the public education establishment, and seeing the same poor results, it is surely time to shake off old ways and to demand new reforms. That isn’t just my opinion; it is the conviction of parents in poor neighborhoods across this nation who want better lives for their children. In Washington, D.C., the Opportunity Scholarship program serves more than 1,900 boys and girls from families with an average income of 23,000 dollars a year. And more than 7,000 more families have applied for that program. What they all have in common is the desire to get their kids into a better school.

Democrats in Congress, including my opponent, oppose the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship program. In remarks to the American Federation of Teachers last weekend, Senator Obama dismissed public support for private school vouchers for low-income Americans as, “tired rhetoric about vouchers and school choice.” All of that went over well with the teachers union, but where does it leave families and their children who are stuck in failing schools?

Over the years, Americans have heard a lot of “tired rhetoric” about education. We’ve heard it in the endless excuses of people who seem more concerned about their own position than about our children. We’ve heard it from politicians who accept the status quo rather than stand up for real change in our public schools. Parents ask only for schools that are safe, teachers who are competent, and diplomas that open doors of opportunity. When a public system fails, repeatedly, to meet these minimal objectives, parents ask only for a choice in the education of their children. Some parents may choose a better public school. Some may choose a private school. Many will choose a charter school. No entrenched bureaucracy or union should deny parents that choice and children that opportunity.

We should also offer more choices to those who wish to become teachers. Many thousands of highly qualified men and women have great knowledge, wisdom, and experience to offer public school students. But a monopoly on teacher certification prevents them from getting that chance. You can be a Nobel Laureate and not qualify to teach in most public schools today. They don’t have all the proper credits in educational “theory” or “methodology” — all they have is learning and the desire and ability to share it. If we’re putting the interests of students first, then those qualifications should be enough.

If I am elected president, school choice for all who want it, an expansion of Opportunity Scholarships, and alternative certification for teachers will all be part of a serious agenda of education reform. I will target funding to recruit teachers who graduate in the top 25 percent of their class, or who participate in an alternative teacher recruitment program such as Teach for America, the American Board for Teacher Excellence, and the New Teacher Project.

Senator McCain is exactly right to embrace, and strongly argue in favor of school choice (as well as the other elements of his education agenda). I hope he does it more often and in more venues. Equal educational opportunity is, after all, the civil rights issue of our time. School choice would bring about enormous good to those who need it most. And for Senator Obama to dismiss school choice as “tired rhetoric” is itself an increasingly tiresome tactic of his. He seemingly dismisses every idea that is different than his, or every criticism that is directed at him, as “tired” and “old.” At some point, Senator Obama might consider examining the quality of an argument. He might even discover that some old ideas are good ideas. I suppose it’s also worth pointing out that the best new idea in years – the 2007 surge in Iraq, which dramatically altered our strategy there and has led to stunning successes – was opposed by a certain senator from Illinois who himself had become tired and weary and wanted to surrender in a war of enormous importance to America.

In any event, Senator Obama’s opposition to school choice and his intimate embrace of the education establishment (memorably referred to by Bill Bennett as “the blob”) is more evidence that Obama is himself a completely conventional liberal. Which means, in this instance, he is an obstacle to education reform and the improvement in the lives of low-income children.

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