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McCain's education plan, unveiled today, shows Klein's influence

In just a few moments, Republican presidential candidate John McCain will begin his speech to the NAACP outlining, at long last, his education platform. The highlights have just gone up at McCain’s web site, and at first blush his plan clearly betrays the fact that he consulted with Chancellor Klein while developing it, particularly when it comes to accountability, teacher quality, and who ought to be charged with making school-based decisions.

First, McCain’s platform calls for the focus of accountability to shift from “group averages” to achievement by individual students. Last fall, New York City released for the first time accountability reports for each school based in large part on the progress of individual students. Adopting this approach for No Child Left Behind accountability would be a significant departure for the federal government, and while doing so might alleviate some of the pressures that the “adequate yearly progress” requirement places on schools, it could also introduce new pressures.

McCain proposes to spend 60 percent of federal Title II funds, meant to improve teacher quality, on performance pay for successful teachers and recruitment bonuses for teachers who agree to teach at high-need schools, something that Klein has recently worked hard to muscle into the city’s schools. In addition, McCain plans to use Title II money (5 percent) to help states recruit top college graduates to teaching, including through alternative certification paths such as Teach for America and the New Teacher Project. Under McCain’s plan, schools would be able to choose professional development programs on which to spend the remaining 35 percent of Title II funds. Title II funds comprise $3 billion of the federal Department of Education’s roughly $70 billion budget.

McCain’s proposal also echoes Klein’s belief that principals ought to be the “CEOs” of their schools. “The money must be controlled by the leader we hold accountable: the school principal with a single criterion to raise student achievement,” McCain’s press release states. One question voters can ask McCain through the long campaign is how he proposes to make sure that principals spend funds according to federal guidelines. Here in New York, we’ve seen that some principals, once released from funding mandates from above, sometimes try to maximize their budgets by cutting non-essential programming and, more relevant to the question of federal funds, inadequately providing services to students with special needs, including those in special education and those who are learning English.

On the subject of school choice, which makes up the remainder of his education policy, McCain toes the Republican line. He proposes to expand DC’s school voucher program (despite the program’s own evaluation that showed that participants did not do better than those who were rejected). He also promises to invest heavily in virtual learning, distance education, and supplemental services to give students enrollment options outside of the traditional schoolhouse. Unfortunately, McCain’s plan would create ample opportunity for corruption by redirecting federal education funds from schools to businesses.

McCain’s press release suggests that he may disagree with President Bush’s education policy in one key respect: as one of his top advisors recently indicated during a “Meet the Press” appearance, he wants to “fully fund” No Child Left Behind. “John McCain is committed to high standards and accountability, but he is also committed to providing the resources needed to succeed,” the press release reads. Should McCain become the next president, a shift toward funding existing federal requirements would provide welcome relief for strapped school districts.

You can read all of McCain’s speech to the NAACP online.

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