John McCain told the NAACP and some skeptical black voters Wednesday that he will expand education opportunities, partly through vouchers for low-income children to attend private school.
The likely Republican presidential nominee addressed the annual convention of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the nation's oldest civil rights organization.
In greeting the group, McCain praised Democrat Barack Obama's historic campaign, but said the Illinois senator is wrong to oppose school vouchers for students in failing public schools. It is time, McCain said, to use vouchers and other tools like merit pay for teachers to break from conventional thinking on educational policy.
Obama, he said, has dismissed support for private school vouchers for low-income Americans.
"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?" the Arizona senator asked. "No entrenched bureaucracy or union should deny parents that choice and children that opportunity."
He received mostly polite applause in a room with some empty seats, two days after Obama received a thunderous reception from a standing-room only audience hoping to see him become the first black president of the United States.
Obama spoke to the NAACP on Monday, saying he would push the government to provide more education and economic assistance, but he also drew big cheers when he urged blacks to demand more of themselves.
"Whatever the outcome in November," McCain told the crowd Wednesday, "Sen. Obama has achieved a great thing, for himself and for his country, and I thank him for it. ... Don't tell him I said this, but he is an impressive fellow in many ways."
During a question-and-answer session, McCain also sought to assuage a frustrated Head Start teacher who complained that her salary from the federal program simply isn't enough.
The woman, wearing a union T-shirt, said she was making $17,000 a year and cannot afford housing, gas, food, or health care for her children. "We cannot continue this way," she said.
McCain said the point of his education platform was to boost pay for "a great and outstanding teacher like you" and other educators who are passionate about their work.
"I want to reward good teachers," said McCain.
McCain said vouchers and merit pay for teachers whose students perform well are two important ways to help kids in failing schools.
"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. "That isn't just my opinion. It is the conviction of parents in poor neighborhoods across this nation who want better lives for their children."
Both the merit pay and voucher proposals have met stiff opposition from teachers unions. Obama has indicated he would support some kind of merit pay system for teachers, if teachers help craft it.