John McCain: The best education president we never had

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The passing of Senator John McCain last month had a profound effect upon our nation’s conscience and countenance. If a life of service is a life well lived, McCain’s was a prodigious one, the likes of which we may never see again. The outpouring of personal stories and tributes from both sides of the aisle surpass those given even to some presidents. His iconic story will undoubtedly endure while those of lesser men fade from memory.

McCain may have been denied the brass ring of the presidency, but that hasn’t stopped some from wondering how things might have been if he had prevailed. In my mind, this would include the trajectory of education policy, considering that a McCain presidency would have partially supplanted an historic period in school reform. While the responsibility of education falls largely to the states, the presidential bully pulpit is a sizable one, and my guess is that McCain would have seized it like the fighter that he was to play a prominent role.

Pundits have varying opinions when it comes to our nation’s best education presidents. Again, given its province in the states, we talk far more about education governors than we do presidents. But they are tone setters, and leadership matters even when it comes to the arcana of education policy. From LBJ’s focus on poverty and Reagan’s call to action to Bush 43’s elevation of accountability and Obama’s putting it on steroids, there is no lack of contenders. Although McCain was known more for his leadership on foreign policy than as an education champion, there are five clues to suggest that he would have brought his out-of-the-box persona to school reform as well.

The first would have been McCain’s choice for education secretary. It’s no secret that he would have tapped the inimitable Lisa Graham Keegan, former Arizona state superintendent of public instruction and McCain’s education advisor for both of his presidential bids. I’ve had the honor and privilege of working with Lisa a few times, and I can say I know few people as eminently qualified as her to wield the authority of a cabinet secretary. A pioneer on accountability and school choice, Lisa’s deep knowledge and vivacious spirit would have been a formidable one-two punch in that office, and she would have been as effective—if not more so—than any of its previous occupants.

Second, McCain would have taken a novel approach to school choice by connecting a push for federally sponsored vouchers with his crusade for campaign finance reform. While it would have likely fallen flat with lawmakers, funding vouchers from a separate pot of money might have served to blunt some of the politics. McCain’s words here were compelling too:

We will find the necessary money for those most in need, by taking it from those least in need. We give hundreds of millions of dollars in subsidies to the producers of ethanol, to oil and gas and sugar manufacturers who are wealthy beyond the dreams of most hard-working Americans. I challenge my opponents to join me in taking the money that we've been giving to the special interests and spend it instead on a child in need.

His approach wouldn’t have been toeing the party line, but as we came to expect from the “maverick,” it typifies the independent thinking that McCain would have brought to bear in crafting education policy.

Third, McCain could have altered the course of history for one of education reform’s castoffs: virtual charter schools. In a speech to the NAACP during his 2008 campaign, McCain said:

We can help more children and young adults to study outside of school by expanding support for virtual learning. So I propose to direct 500 million dollars in current federal funds to build new virtual schools, and to support the development of online courses for students. Through competitive grants, we will allocate another 250 million dollars to support state programs expanding online education opportunities, including the creation of new public virtual charter schools. States can use these funds to build virtual math and science academies to help expand the availability of Advanced Placement math, science, and computer science courses, online tutoring, and foreign language courses.

If one of Race to the Top’s tenets had been to cajole states into putting their shoulder to the cyber-charter wheel, could we have averted the disastrous results that have been panned by advocates and the media alike? Perhaps not, but it’s a counterfactual worth contemplating if you consider how—at the very least—it might have kept virtual charters from flying under the radar for so long. While hope is not completely lost for online schools, McCain might have helped to prevent them from digging themselves into such a deep hole.

Fourth, McCain’s home state of Arizona has been an exporter of assets like Great Hearts and BASIS, as well as a proving ground for other high-performing, mom-and-pop charter management organizations. Granted, the state has earned the scorn of some critics for a “Wild West” approach to charter authorizing, but the label has also been a source of pride. When it comes to education reform and school choice, there are no pale pastels in the Grand Canyon State, but bold colors befitting of the state’s late political giant.

Finally, as a self-professed bookworm who spent his childhood bouncing around over twenty schools, a President McCain would have brought a unique and valuable perspective to this enterprise. Presidential historian Jon Meacham wrote, “You can tell a lot about a president—or a presidential candidate—by what he reads, or says he reads.” A study in contrasts with the current officeholder, McCain would have brought an audacious vision to education, and dared greatly to achieve it. I’m saddened by his departure from the arena.

 
 
Dale Chu
Dale Chu Senior Visiting Fellow