Republican presidential candidate John McCain on Friday told an influential black organization that Democratic rival Barack Obama opposed private school vouchers and was beholden to the teacher's union, both at the expense of underprivileged students.
McCain said that Obama sent his own children to private school while holding back efforts to give more choices to low-income families. The Arizona Republican acknowledged that he and his wife sent their children to private school, too, saying that "everybody should have the same choice Cindy and I and Sen. Obama did."
Although McCain touts the idea of school choice, he is not proposing a federal private school voucher plan as have President Bush and other voucher advocates. McCain does propose to expand a voucher program in the District of Columbia, his advisers saying he no longer seeks a nationwide voucher program because the No Child Left Behind law has helped to give parents and students more choices. That law should be the vehicle for expanding choices, they say.
In listing a variety of changes in education policies that he contended would improve a flawed system — from school choice to more local control and direct public support to parents for tutoring — McCain said Obama came up short.
"My opponent talks a great deal about hope and change, and education is as good a test as any of his seriousness," he said. "If Sen. Obama continues to defer to the teachers unions instead of committing to real reform, then he should start looking for new slogans."
McCain's criticism of Obama, the first serious black candidate for president, to the National Urban League echoed the Republican theme that the Democrat's words don't necessarily match his actions or his thin resume. Obama was scheduled to address the National Urban League on Saturday.
"If there's one thing he always delivers it's a great speech," McCain said. "But I hope you'll listen carefully, because his ideas are not always as impressive as his rhetoric."
While McCain received a respectful welcome from the audience and at times applause, he drew gasps and grumbles during a feisty question-and-answer session. He was not asked about his criticism of Obama's remark that he and other Republicans would try to scare voters by saying the Democrat "doesn't look like all those other presidents on the dollar bills."
Asked what he would do about crime if elected president, McCain praised former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who was widely scorned by many civil rights leaders for permitting the city's police department to use overly aggressive tactics against black criminal suspects.
Giuliani, McCain told the group, transformed New York from "a city really none of us were comfortable walking in the streets to one that was basically safe."
In two high-profile cases during the Giuliani administration, police shot and killed unarmed West African immigrant Amadou Diallo and beat and sodomized Haitian immigrant Abner Louima in a Brooklyn station house.
McCain repeated his claim that "the best equal opportunity employer in the country is the U.S. military." However, an Associated Press study found that while blacks make up about 17 percent of the total force, just 9 percent of officers are black.
McCain, in response to a question, said affirmative action was "in the eye of the beholder." He did not mention that he supports an anti-affirmative action referendum on the ballot in Arizona.
Still, McCain made several comments that pleased the audience. Among other things, he vowed to step up Justice Department investigations of civil rights violations if elected and said he would appoint U.S attorneys based on qualifications, not politics.
Earlier this week, an internal investigation found that Justice Department officials had broken the law by letting Bush administration politics dictate the hiring of prosecutors and other government lawyers.
McCain also apologized anew for voting against the enactment of a federal holiday honoring the birthday of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1983. "I was wrong," he said to applause.