In a major education speech in Spartanburg, South Carolina on February 10, Republican presidential candidate John McCain renewed his call for a massive national voucher experiment, and then delivered a stinging attack against the teacher unions and their “education monopoly.”
Within a week, McCain himself was stung by defeat in the South Carolina primary, apparently caused by conservative Republicans turning out in large numbers to support George W. Bush. Within two weeks, the tables were turned again, and McCain savored an unexpected primary win in Michigan, where teacher union influence is strong but the Arizona Senator’s message apparently resonated among independent voters.
Declaring it “a national disgrace” that many American children don’t have a basic understanding of America’s cultural and historical traditions, McCain called for a rejection of “the snake oil peddled by professional excuse makers that certain students just aren’t capable because of who they are or where they’re from.” That view, he said, “is an insidious form of bigotry that has no place in our society.”
Focusing on excellent student performance as the measure of success, McCain prescribed a commitment to school choice as the remedy for the country’s educational ills. Competition produces excellence, he said, and “it’s time that competition be allowed to work its wonders in the educational arena.”
Such reforms have been extraordinarily difficult to achieve, McCain said, because of the “corrupting influence” of the teacher unions, who have millions of dollars to hand out in soft money campaign contributions to those who will work to oppose school choice.
“In order to appease union bosses, President Clinton and Vice President Gore are perfectly willing to keep poor, underprivileged children locked in failing public schools–while they send their own kids to the most exclusive, most expensive private schools in Washington, DC,” charged McCain.
While Bush’s school choice plan would have students wait three years before they could leave a failing school, the McCain proposal calls for providing $2,000 vouchers to nearly one million children from the neediest families so they can escape immediately from the poorest performing schools. The program would run for three years at an estimated cost of $5.4 billion, which McCain would fund by ending tax breaks for the sugar, ethanol, and oil and gas industries.
“Every year of a child’s education is precious,” said McCain. “Let’s not consign students to three more years of failure before we take the urgent action that we all know is needed now.”
While campaigning in Michigan, McCain didn’t hesitate to support the Kids First! Yes! voucher initiative there, attending rallies and speaking up for the measure at fundraisers. By contrast, Bush was neutral on the issue, which is strongly opposed by Governor John Engler. According to observers, this difference in the way the two candidates handled a sensitive local issue helped bolster the perception of McCain as someone who was willing to take a position and make a stand.
Bush also lost some ground in Michigan simply by his association with Engler. For example, the Rev. E.L. Branch made a plea from his pulpit for members of his New Hope Missionary Baptist Church to vote against Bush just to spite Engler. The governor has angered many in Detroit for closing city clinics, cutting off general assistance for single adults, initiating a takeover of the city’s public schools, and ending city residency requirements for municipal workers.
“Our governor has not made us happy,” said Branch. “We should not make him too happy.”