Where’s Education? Part III

It’s hard to find the education in McCain’s ed speech coverage

Yesterday, for the first time during the 2008 presidential campaign, John McCain issued a set of specific policy proposals for improving the country’s failing education system. Speaking at the NAACP’s annual meeting in Cincinnati, the presumptive GOP nominee promoted vouchers for parochial, private, and charter schools; alternative certification programs that would lower the barriers to teaching; school-level funding of merit pay for teachers; the continuation of federal funding for tutoring services; and federal funding for virtual schools and online learning.

You’d think all this would be worth some attention. Not only has McCain been basically mum about his education platform since he declared his candidacy, but his 2008 plans mark a significant, move-to-the-middle departure from the relatively bold positions he advocated in 2000. But no. Many of the major print outlets’ write-ups of McCain’s speech were relegated to those outlets’ blogs. And the ones that gave column inches to the speech often focused either on the kind words McCain had for Obama at the outset of his speech (breaking: McCain said something nice about the competition!) or on the tepid reception that met McCain’s appearance at Cincinnati’s Duke Energy Center:

Boston Globe: “McCain courts skeptical blacks at NAACP event”
USA Today: “NAACP gives low-key response to McCain”
San Francisco Chronicle: “NAACP gives McCain polite reception”
LA Times: “McCain wins some respect”
Seattle Times: “Respectful reception for McCain at NAACP”
Houston Chronicle: “NAACP gives McCain polite reception”

Et cetera.

It’s worth noting, on the one hand, how rude those headlines are. (A “polite reception” shouldn’t be news, after all, and the fact that such a reception comes from the NAACP doesn’t make it so. There’s something off-putting, if not fully offensive, in these headlines’ framings and assumptions.) And it’s worth noting on the other, that, in their focus on the personal rather than on policy, they miss the point. Even the papers whose headlines mention the education component of McCain’s speech—The Washington Post, the International Herald Tribune, Newsday—use AP copy, rather than original reporting, for their articles. And the wire story, though it accurately conveys McCain’s proposals, mentions them only in the broader context of the “skeptical” reception the candidate elicited from participants at the NAACP conference. Save for some questioning quotes at the end, the AP story’s ed policy component lacks the kind of detail and nuance that most readers need to fully understand the policies being propounded.

The news outlets may have had their reasons for treating McCain’s speech this way. Given McCain’s none-too-stellar voting record on matters of legislative priority to the NAACP—in the organization’s most recent rating of legislators, Steve Benen notes, McCain tied for dead last in the Senate; and he’s received failing grades in every report card this decade—perhaps they figured his Cincinnati reception was as newsworthy as his plans for education reform. Or perhaps they figured there was little that was surprising in McCain’s proposals (shock: he still doesn’t love teachers unions; shock: he still advocates school choice). Or perhaps they figured that education has become such a back-burner issue on the campaign trail—compared with foreign wars, current and potential, the floundering economy, and Hillary Clinton’s new hairstyle—that McCain’s proposals are worth neither much column space nor much deep analysis.

Still, had more reporters written original copy about McCain’s speech, paying attention to and parsing the details of the candidate’s proposals for fixing a broken education system, they might have noted the following line, which McCain unveiled after noting that “it is surely time to shake off old ways and to demand new reforms”:

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.

Had on-the-bus reporters and their editors focused on McCain’s policy proposals, they might have checked, as The American Prospect’s Dana Goldstein did, last month’s Department of Education report analyzing the Opportunity Scholarship program’s impact over the past two years. Had they done so, they might have been a bit surprised to read the study’s findings:

• After 2 years, there was no statistically significant difference in test scores in general between students who were offered an OSP scholarship and students who were not offered a scholarship. Overall, those in the treatment and control groups were performing at comparable levels in mathematics and reading.

• The Program had a positive impact on overall parent satisfaction and parent perceptions of school safety, but not on students’ reports of satisfaction and safety.

In other words, the program McCain mentions to highlight the desire parents have for “better lives for their children”—and, more to the point, to suggest his belief that vouchers are the means to those better lives—works for parents more than it does for children. Most would agree that, in education as in most things, the welfare of children trumps all else—and as far as the kids are concerned, the Opportunity Scholarship program boasts no measurable benefits in academic achievement or overall wellbeing.

But it’s hard to explore the nuances of and discrepancies in McCain’s speech when you’re given only 730 words—and when many of those words are devoted, as they were in the AP’s case, to discussions of the NAACP audience’s “skeptical” reaction to, and “polite applause” for, McCain. We got, instead, mostly broad-stroked copy. If we were lucky, we got a blog post or two. If we were really lucky, those blog posts linked to the text of McCain’s speech, so we could see his proposals for ourselves, minus the middleman.

In this case, unfortunately, the text of that speech is much more instructive than most of the articles that try to summarize it—even if the speech provokes as many questions as it answers. Among them: When McCain proposes “to direct 500 million dollars in current federal funds to build new virtual schools, and to support the development of online courses for students,” what will be removed from the federal budget to free up those funds? When he says, “no longer will we measure teacher achievement by conformity to process. We will measure it by the success of their students,” what exactly does he mean? Sure, McCain is knocking-while-not-discounting NCLB…but how, exactly, does he propose to measure student “success” without the “conformity to process” that is, by definition, a test? If a McCain administration would adopt a school choice policy that would allow some children to leave the public school system, what would that administration do for all the children who would be left behind?

I’d add one more question to the list: Why aren’t campaign reporters asking those questions for us?

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Megan Garber is an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University. She was formerly a CJR staff writer.