The difference, according to the Arizona Republican, is that he - not Obama - favors vouchers that give parents more school choices.
"Everybody should have the same choice Cindy and I and Sen. Obama did," McCain told the National Urban League, an influential black organization that Obama will address on Saturday.
McCain listed 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. In each case, he 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.
"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."
During a feisty question-and-answer sesssion, McCain drew gasps and grumbles from the mostly black crowd when he praised former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani. The one-time GOP presidential candidate 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.