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President Bush’s signature education reform initiative, No Child Left Behind, would likely to be scaled back under a John McCain presidency in favor of controversial school voucher and school choice programs.

“If a school will not change, the students should be able to change schools,” presumptive Republican presidential nominee Sen. John McCain’s (R-Ariz.) education policy statement says. “The ability to change schools is “a fundamental and essential right we should honor for all parents.” It continues that McCain “believes all federal financial support must be predicated on providing parents the ability to move their children, and the dollars associated with them, from failing schools.”

McCain’s view differs from that of President Bush, who worked closely with lawmakers from both parties in 2001 to pass the No Child Left Behind legislation. The bill sets federal standards for all schools, links federal funding to meeting those goals and allows for limited school choice. Bush said the measure’s underlying goal is having all children learning at their grade levels by 2014. NCLB is considered one of Bush’s top domestic legislative achievements.

A McCain campaign aide said the candidate believes No Child Left Behind is a good start but would make changes to call for more local control over the schools and provide parents more choice in picking schools. Specifically, McCain would back a plan likely to spark backlash from Democrats and teachers unions that would offer vouchers for students to transfer out of failing public schools and into private institutions.

The National Education Association and the National Parent Teacher Association criticized McCain’s plan for failing to address what they believe are No Child Left Behind’s key flaws — a lack of federal funding and an overemphasis on student testing.

Joel Packer, NEA’s director of education policy and practice, said McCain’s proposal is “just so thin that it’s not much of a plan” and only represents minor changes from Bush’s plan. PTA President Jan Harp Domene said McCain would perpetuate an unfair system that takes money from schools that fail to meet goals and need the aid most.

But the McCain aide rejected these criticisms, arguing that there is more than enough federal funding for education but that it has not been used correctly. The aide said Democratic nominee Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.) may be proposing new spending but not much in the way of new ideas for helping to improve schools.

The aide also disputed suggestions from some teachers unions that McCain was aiming to create a national voucher program. Instead, the campaign official said McCain was only seeking to increase funding from $13 million to $20 million for Washington, D.C.’s Opportunity Scholarship Program to allow 1,000 more families to take part in an effort that provides private school vouchers for children at failing public schools.

NEA and PTA officials said vouchers undermine the public school system, instead of helping to improve it by taking money and students out of the system. The new president “needs to distance himself from this program,” Domene said.

Neal McCluskey, the associate director of the Cato Institute’s Center for Educational Freedom, says competition from private schools will help strengthen the public school system. Furthermore, allowing schools to compete on a level playing field leads to greater innovation, he said.

McCain also wants to give school principals more control over performance-based pay for teachers.

Principals would have authority to consider other issues in addition to test scores in assessing performance bonuses, such as peer evaluations, student improvements and meeting state goals. Other funding matters, such as how to use federal funds for tutoring, would also be placed in the hands of school principals.

Critics say providing school principals with more authority to set standards for performance-based pay violates union collective bargaining agreements and has been shown not to work. This approach “leads to potential favoritism” and also puts such decisions in the hands of people who may not have the expertise to make these calls, Packer said.

If McCain does become president, several GOP Members could emerge as allies in revamping NCLB, including House Minority Leader John Boehner (Ohio) and Reps. Howard McKeon (Calif.) and Mike Castle (Del.), along with Sen. Mike Enzi (Wyo.). Some of those lawmakers are members of committees with jurisdiction over NCLB, with Enzi being the ranking member of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee and McKeon as ranking member of the House Education and Labor Committee.

McCain’s lack of support for additional NCLB funding would likely alienate HELP Chairman Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.). But Democrats may have enough votes in the Senate next year that they would be able to pass legislation increasing that funding.

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