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John McCain: The Link Between School Choice and Global Competition

John McCain delivered an important speech today on what he will do to fix the ailing economy. Although he didn't talk much the role of education, in a five-point plan he released today to accompany his speech, he identified education as central to making American workers more competitive And that's to his credit. (ED in '08 must be thrilled!)

But again, McCain seems to think school choice is the answer to improving education.

School choice may work to improve student performance and schools but I'm not sure even the most ardent school choice supporters (who should correct me if I'm wrong) believe that school choice, all by itself, will work to improve schools in each and every community.

Last week, for example, I traveled to rural South Carolina—to Kingstree Junior High. I made the trip as part of a story I'm doing about how the state is encouraging schools to pursue single-gender options for classroom learning—part of a bigger effort to bring more public school choices to South Carolina schools.

Kingstree is a very poor, mostly African-American community in the center of the state and about two hours from any of the big cities. The school has a dynamic new principal and a staff of hard-working, motivated teachers (including some from an international program because the school finds it difficult to recruit teachers to the rural area.) But the problems in this community are great. The median family income is about $17,000, school officials told me, and 80 percent of the junior-high students live in a single parent (or grandparent, or foster parent) household. Many of their parents are unemployed or unskilled laborers who must travel 70 miles one way to the Myrtle Beach tourist area for a job, which leaves the kids home alone and without transportation during after-school hours. Though there are some private schools in the area, there certainly aren't enough to absorb 470 junior-high school students if they all decided to go to private school.

For many students, Kingstree's public schools are the only option. This school illustrates how difficult it would be to implement a private school choice program—like the one McCain thinks will help fix public education—in the country's poor, rural areas.

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