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Published: Wednesday, 7/16/2008

McCain talks public education reform before NAACP audience

BY JIM PROVANCE
BLADE COLUMBUS BUREAU CHIEF

COLUMBUS It was a far cry from the exuberance that greeted his opponent two days earlier, but John McCain was greeted politely by the national convention of the NAACP Wednesday as he praised the history made by Barack Obama.

"Don t tell him I said this, but he is an impressive fellow in many ways," the Republican nominee-to-be said to cheers from the crowd.

"He has inspired a great many Americans, some of whom had wrongly believed that a political campaign could hold no purpose or meaning for them," he said. "His success should make Americans, all Americans, proud. Of course, I would prefer his success not continue quite as long as he hopes."

Mr. McCain used much of his 40-minute speech at the Duke Energy Convention Center to focus on reform of public education, including his call for taxpayer-funded vouchers to help parents pay for tuition at non-public schools, an issue that divides the African-American community.

"For all the best efforts of teachers and administrators, the worst problems of our public school system are often found in black communities," said the Arizona senator. "Black and Latino students are among the most likely to drop out of high school. I don t have to tell you that. African-Americans are also among the least likely to go on to college.

"After decades of hearing the same big promises from the public education establishment, and seeing the same poor results, it is surely time to shake off old ways and to demand new reforms," he said.

He noted that Mr. Obama joined other Democrats in Congress in opposing Washington D.C. s voucher program.

"In remarks to the American Federation of Teachers last weekend, Senator Obama dismissed public support for private school vouchers for low-income Americans as, tired rhetoric about vouchers and school choice, "he said.

"All of that went over well with the teachers union, but where does it leave families and their children who are stuck in failing schools?"

Mr. Obama made similar comments about vouchers before the 99th annual NAACP convention Monday night. Ohio has its own voucher programs focused on students in Cleveland schools and those in failing schools statewide.

Mr. McCain called for bonuses for teachers who choose to work in troubled schools and to reward those whom produce better-performing students.

Arlene Holt Baker, executive vice president of the AFL-CIO and the highest-ranking African-American ever in the union, said she believed Mr. McCain converted few in the audience. The AFL-CIO has endorsed Mr. Obama.

"He took the opportunity to, quite frankly, bash workers who are in education, our teachers," she said. "I do not believe we should be moving toward discounting public education. Public education should be funded adequately. Teachers should be compensated adequately so we d see more people coming into the system to teach."

Mr. McCain received the strongest responses from the crowd when he broke from his script to take questions from the audience, something Mr. Obama did not do Monday.

He criticized the Federal Emergency Management Agency s response to Hurricane Katrina and promised to fix and then fully fund No Child Left Behind education programs that he characterized as "a good start."

Last month s Quinnipiac Poll showed Mr. Obama with at least 90 percent support of blacks in key swing states Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Florida.

"I am a candidate for president who seeks your vote and hopes to earn it," he told the crowd. "But whether or not I win your support, I need your goodwill and counsel. And should I succeed, I ll need it all the more. I have always believed in this country, in a good America, a great America. But I have always known we can build a better America, where no place or person is left without hope or opportunity by the sins of injustice or indifference."

If nothing else, Mr. McCain won respect by making the appearance in front of an organization whose members lean heavily in support of his Democratic opponent. George W. Bush declined the NAACP s invitation to speak during his 2004 re-election campaign, although he did speak as a candidate in 2000.

Mr. McCain spoke before a crowd of about 2,000, much smaller than the crowd that overflowed into nearby Fountain Square in downtown Cincinnati that greeted Mr. Obama. Although his remarks drew polite applause and some laughter, some in the crowd stayed in their seats with their arms folded while others rose for a standing ovation when Mr. McCain completed his speech.

But he seemed to win points by making the appearance anyway.

"He s a candidate for president. That s the highest office in this nation. I feel any candidate, I don t care who it is or where he comes from, should come before the NAACP, the largest and oldest civil rights organization in this country," said Yvonne White, president of the Michigan NAACP and a convention delegate.

"It shows whether they care about the minority vote or not," she said.

Contact Jim Provance at: jprovance@theblade.com, or 614-221-0496.



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