As president, Sen. McCain will champion assessments and accountability, and he will be able to persuade the more conservative wing of his party, which disparages the No Child Left Behind Act as an unprecedented overreach of federal authority, to support those policies, Lisa Graham Keegan, McCain's top education adviser told me in an interview today.
She participated in the meetings last week during which the GOP hammered out its education platform and said she was surprised by the level of agreement in the room.
"I was amazed at how much coalescence there was around Sen. McCain's education agenda," she said."His agenda is the party's agenda."
But it was hard to pin her down on what kind of changes McCain would seek to the NCLB law. She mentioned growth models, which permit states to measure individual student achievement, rather than comparing different cohorts of students to one another. Okay ... but that the U.S. Department of Education already permits states to use approved growth models in their accountability systems.
And when I asked her how Sen. McCain's education policy would differ from President Bush's, she said that, "We've learned a lot from No Child Left Behind" and that McCain would seek more immediate help for students in failing schools.
"If we find out a child is not doing well, that child immediately gets tutoring, that child gets an option for a new school," she said.
I wonder if that means the prospective McCain administration would speed up the law's timetable of sanctions. Or would it just make it easier for parents to access the choice and supplemental services provisions of the law? Either way, that could be a tough sell to a Congress that in all likelihood will remain under Democratic control.
When I asked Keegan about that, she touted McCain's record working with Democrats on issues such as campaign finance reform.
"McCain is the right guy to do that," she said.
Phil Handy, who served as chairman of the Florida state board of education under Gov. Jeb Bush and is another top education adviser to the McCain campaign, was also on hand. He and Keegan told me that McCain sees the role between the federal government and the states as a partnership.
Keegan said that's a contrast from his Democratic rival, Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois, who has a more top-down approach, in her view.
"He has not taken a reform position at all," she said. "He's proposing a myriad of small [federal] programs."
And Handy reminded me that McCain has signed onto the Education Equality Project's statement, which seeks to advance the idea that schools are primarily responsible for student achievement and promotes greater accountability for teachers and public school choice. Obama has not signed that statement, a move McCain attributed to union opposition in a speech last month. So I guess they're still trying to get some mileage out of that.
Later that evening, Keegan addressed the convention. I was all primed for a speech on education policy, but she barely mentioned schools at all, except to say that McCain had supported her when she ran for Arizona school's chief.
"When I decided to run for state school superintendent in Arizona, folks were pretty skeptical," she told the delegates. "Nobody had ever run for that position before as a committed advocate for school choice. But John McCain was there for me. He even offered to be my campaign chairman."
The rest of her speech urged delegates to support hurricane recovery efforts in the Gulf Coast.
In another public appearance yesterday, at the forum sponsored by the American Solutions for Winning the Future, a nonprofit organization started by Newt Gingrich, Keegan positioned herself as a champion for accountability through testing.
"We are in serious denial in our country," Keegan said. She told a story about how she had "walk[ed] into a wealthy suburban school" and heard the principal say of the state math test for accountability, "you know what I couldn't have passed this test. And my response was 'shame on you.' They had to take me out with armed guards."