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”
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.