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Comparing the education messages of Obama and Romney

Talking education on the campaign trail is problematic for both presidential candidates.

Some of Mitt Romney's policies on education might not sit well with members of his own party.
REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

Last spring, the College Board commissioned a poll of nearly 2,000 swing voters in the states of Florida, North Carolina, Virginia, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Colorado, Nevada and New Mexico. In an issues ranking, the swing voters ranked education third in importance, and 67 percent listed it as “extremely important.”

African-American, Latino, Democratic and female voters were most likely to rank education highest. A majority of swing voters favor increased education funding; 55 percent would pay $200 more in taxes to get more money to schools.

And Republicans, who typically spend the first portion of their campaigns playing to the highly conservative base that dominates the primary gantlet, often use the issue of education as a way to move toward the moderate center in the run-up to the general election.

So why aren’t we hearing more about education from either Mitt Romney or Barack Obama? The common wisdom is that there’s not much that divides the two parties in the increasingly bipartisan area of education reform.

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As New York Times reporter Trip Gabriel noted: “The challenge for Mr. Romney is that many of the ideas he touched on — increasing the number of charter schools, holding teachers more accountable for student success — have already been adopted by the Obama administration, whose education policies have all but co-opted traditional Republican positions.”

That’s true. And it’s also true that talking education on the campaign trail is problematic for Obama, too. Many of those same policies have led to a push for reforms requiring big changes in teacher evaluations and teacher-union tenure and seniority provisions. The president has not talked much about this on the stump, instead stressing his first-term record of investing in education.

Both quiet on NCLB

Nor has either candidate mentioned the central juggernaut of the last two years: the overdue renewal of the nation’s chief education policy law, popularly referred to as No Child Left Behind (NCLB). As chair of the House of Representatives Education and the Workforce Committee, John Kline, R-Minn., thought he was going to have enormous leverage over its replacement.

Instead, he has found himself wedged between his party’s Tea Party wing, which favors the wholesale withdrawal of the federal government from education — including the abolition of the U.S. Department of Education — and Obama’s Education Commissioner Arne Duncan, who sidestepped the gridlock by offering states waivers from the law’s punitive consequences.

In terms of policy, the largest difference between the two presidential candidates is their views on accountability. Romney’s platform would lessen the role of federal accountability standards, while Obama’s endorses the importance of federal oversight. Romney would scrap the accountability provisions altogether in favor of transparent report cards on school performance.

So what are the two candidates saying about their records and platforms?

Obama’s message

Obama is tightly focused on reminding voters that his administration made education funding — and specifically teacher job protection — a centerpiece of his economic stimulus program.

His administration to have preserved 400,000 educator jobs first through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act in 2009, then in 2010 through the Education Jobs Fund, which put $10 billion to try to avert teacher layoffs. The money did avert thousands of layoffs in Minnesota, although it’s not clear what will happen now that the funding has stopped.

Obama is not talking a great deal about the stimulus grants known as Race to the Top, perhaps because the states that competed successfully for that money showcased the aforementioned changes to teacher evaluation, hiring and retention. His verbiage on the reform toolkit the money recognized has softened considerably.

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Obama speaks at a rally at the University of Michigan
REUTERS/Jason Reed
President Obama wants to raise standards for teacher training.

“This includes raising standards for the programs that prepare our teachers, recognizing and rewarding good teaching, and retaining good teachers,” the Democratic platform says of Obama’s record. “We also believe in carefully crafted evaluation systems that give struggling teachers a chance to succeed and protect due process if another teacher has to be put in the classroom.”                       

The president is also touting his support for higher standards, noting that 46 governors have signed off on the Common Core Standards. In truth, this push for a uniform definition of academic rigor has been a state-led effort. The most Obama should be claiming credit for is cheerleading.

Romney’s message

Mitt Romney has talked a little about his education record as governor of Massachusetts, which has the nation’s highest test scores thanks to a reform that predated his governorship by a decade. In that post, like Obama, he pushed for the loosening of union rules so teachers could be held more accountable, but ran into opposition from that state’s Democrat-controlled Legislature.

He also favored scrapping the nation’s first bilingual education law and instead immersing English-language learners in English-only classrooms. This failed miserably.

The much-hyped John and Abigail Adams Scholarships were billed as a free ride to a state school for any student graduating in the top 25 percent of their class. The fine print revealed that the scholarships covered only tuition and not fees, which account for more than 80 percent of yearly costs at some state schools. Only a fourth of recipients actually choose to attend state colleges.

The director of the Massachusetts Association of School Committees told the Boston Globe, “His impact was inconsequential. People viewed his proposals as political talking points, and no one took Romney seriously. What he gets credit for is absolutely refusing to compromise on everything he wanted to do from the moment he took office, and some people think that’s commendable.”

His presidential platform looks a lot like Obama’s first-term reform agenda, but with a hefty dose of privatization. In addition to eliminating NCLB’s interventions Romney would make a major change to the way federal aid for poor and special-needs students is distributed.

Some funding would be ‘portable’

Under his plan, Title I, which provides support for schools with concentrations of low-income students, and IDEA funding, which pays some of the cost of educating kids with special needs, would become “portable.” Instead of going to schools, the money would follow individual students, who could spend it at the public, private or charter school of their choosing, or for tutoring or online schooling.

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Because these two pots of money constitute the largest federal interventions in local schools and state policies aside from No Child Left Behind’s testing requirements, this would be a radical change.

Opined the editors of the Wall Street Journal: “Romney’s platform would align him with transformative school choice and its leaders in states such as Indiana and Louisiana. Romney’s support for tying funds directly to children is a transformative change that would reorient the country’s education system around choice and competition. It should be viewed more as a signal of policy approach than an actual proposal that is likely to pass Congress should he become elected.”

In a move Tea Party critics have called “over-controlling,” Romney would also require states to provide open-enrollment options for Title I and IDEA students and to eliminate caps on charter and online schools. And he would change the U.S. Charter School Program to allow charter management organizations — some of them for-profit companies — to get funding to “scale-up” programs.

A proponent of online schooling

He is a proponent of online schooling, a sector that is increasingly populated by for-profit corporations, several of which are operating digital charter schools here. And he is virulently anti-union.

Romney would expand the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, which provides vouchers for disadvantage students in Washington and which Obama has tried to end. He would also eliminate NCLB’s requirement that states provide “highly qualified” teachers to all students. (Each state sets its own standards for what counts as “highly qualified.”)

Before his candidacy, Romney praised Race to the Top. So it should come as no surprise that he would offer states federal block grants to adopt “teacher quality” policies such as reforming or eliminating tenure and instituting evaluation systems that focus on student achievement.

Introduction by Jeb Bush

The introduction to the education white paper that serves as the centerpiece to his education platform was written by former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who seems like a shoo-in as Romney’s education commissioner.

As he told the Latino Coalition in a speech last spring in Washington, D.C.: “Leadership makes a huge difference.  When Jeb Bush became governor of Florida, reading scores of Hispanic students in that state’s school system were dismal. He brought focused innovation and passionate leadership.  Today those scores have risen dramatically.

“But too often, new ideas, good teachers, and dedicated parents don’t find a welcoming partner and true champion in elected officials like Gov. Bush.  Instead, they are met with resistance and resentment from the establishment.”

Author’s note: Are you interested in taking part in a discussion about the two education platforms and their possible local ramifications? Join me and the staff of AchieveMpls tonight, Wednesday, Sept. 26, at the latest Our City, Our Schools forum [PDF], which will take place at the University of Minnesota’s Urban Research and Outreach-Engagement Center at 2001 Plymouth Ave. N., Minneapolis. The program will run from 6 p.m. to 7:30 p.m.