A few quick reactions to Senator McCain’s education speech and new agenda. Punchline: Maybe Chad Aldeman is advising him after all? Nothing in here is going to ignite a Whitmiresque fantasy. Nothing in here will fire up McCain’s base but it’s not a bold enough play to either pull a Bush-like repositioning with suburban women or get centrists excited. And nothing here is going to force Senator Obama’s hand. But he was at the NAACP? Seems like a missed opportunity to me.
Overall, there does seem to be an effort at hand-forcing but if this campaign turns into a debate about vouchers please just shoot me now. I’d prefer a debate that ignores education than that tired fight again. Besides, everyone knows that performance-pay is the new vouchers anyway. And, although it seems that McCain is trying to lay a bear trap for Senator Obama around the voucher issue, I’ve always thought that for a bear trap to work you needed a, you know, bear. The D.C. voucher program hardly seems likely to be a big issue during the fall campaign and is more an ’09 issue, so where’s the bear? Alternatively, if he’s trying to trip up Senator Obama once he’s President Obama, then that’s a novel campaign strategy…But I could be wrong on this…
But there is a bigger disconnect here: Where’s the big agenda and the resources? I’m hardly a throw money at the problem kind of guy, but big ideas do often have a commensurate price tag. Sara Mead’s bummed that McCain didn’t talk about pre-kindergarten education. Me too especially because pre-k is exactly the kind of public-private choice driven system Republicans claim to like so much. But I’m even more disappointed that while overall McCain says we need to get past conventional thinking on this issue, something I agree with wholeheartedly, he doesn’t provide a roadmap or the resources to do that.
I don’t disagree with some of his ideas (several of which seem familiar…) and there is some good stuff in there but collectively they’re more a laundry list than any sort of comprehensive set of ideas to seriously change American education and without serious resources attached to them they’re not going to leverage real change anyway. Meanwhile, McCain wants to make a big bet on virtual education with a proposal that will make some of the vendors swoon, but it’s unclear from what he laid out if he understands that the virtual education problem is at least as much one of content as infrastructure. There is a pretty big gap between what teachers are seeing with this stuff and what the enthusiasts are promising…Likewise, he’s right to want to add more pluralism to teacher training but this package needs more dollars and more ambition on that front.
And, during Q & A in front of the NAACP he seemed to commit to “fully funding” No Child Left Behind, something dramatically at odds with his earlier pledges to rein in federal spending and balance the budget by 2013. Lest it be considered a flip flop, his aides cleaned that up afterwards but it’s illustrative of what seems to be something of a disjointed approach to education policymaking over there. It’s hard to see what the coherent whole is and hard to tell if Senator McCain cares enough to really develop one. The rhetoric was mostly casting the issue in the negative, what others had done wrong etc…there was no simple mission statement that under his leadership x or y would happen on education or some set of first principles. And the stuff on faraway Washington officials is as tired as it gets, I’ve seen that movie…Especially in front of the NAACP he could have laid out a bigger vision for what educational equity looks like and in the process perhaps stimulated more of an education debate in this campaign.
*In the interest of transparency as I start to write more about the campaign I should note that I’m supporting Senator Obama. And, although in my role at Education Sector, a non-partisan 501c3 organization I’ve had contact with both campaigns around our published work and theories of action, in my free (personal and non-compensated) time I have contact with the Obama campaign on policy issues.