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From debate, voters got little beyond Big Bird on education

Education was mentioned repeatedly over the course of 90 largely un-moderated minutes, yet my bet is Americans learned nothing about either campaign’s platform.

On their love for education, Obama and Romney seemed to be in agreement, but what that means specifically is anyone's guess.
REUTERS/Jim Bourg

Today Your Humble Blogger is going to wax opinionated. Specifically, about the first presidential debate, which I watched Wednesday night with a standing-room-only crowd at one of MinnPost’s signature policy parties at Hell’s Kitchen.

The event was a blast, but in terms of education the debate disappointed. Voters learned that Barack loves Michelle, Mitt loves Big Bird, and both love schools.

How will either show that love of education? Good question. The topic was mentioned repeatedly over the course of 90 largely un-moderated minutes, yet my bet is Americans learned nothing about either campaign’s platform.

Both men only hinted at their specific policies, and both overreached when they did. Perhaps because the underlying details of many are fairly similar and don’t play well to either candidate’s base?

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Barack Obama, for example, mentioned Race to the Top (RTTT) three times, insisting that the stimulus grant program had “made a real difference” and was “making a difference.” But by typing the clause “stimulus grant program,” I’ve just told you more about it than he did.

No specifics

The president is campaigning on RTTT, yet he failed to mention that it funneled billions of dollars to cash-strapped states that presented plans for upping their educational game. Or that a chunk of his stimulus spending went to preserving teacher jobs.  

OK, so maybe he didn’t say that because educators would be on him like white on rice, pointing out the potholes in both claims — but RTTT is his campaign’s marquee item, so he should have said something substantive.

What he did say was that RTTT “made a real difference” in 46 states. Too bad he wasn’t more specific about what kind of difference. I am left to deduce by his reference to 46 states that the change-driver to which he refers is the adoption of the Common Core Standards — which mean nothing to John and Jane Voter.

Worse, the two or three of you out there who did catch the reference probably also made the next mental leap I made: Common Core — an effort to ensure that all states agree what the elements of a good education are — is not Obama’s initiative.

It was launched and nurtured into being by the governors of those states, who were a little freaked out that the president’s decision to encourage RTTT applicants to adopt the standards might make their right-headed effort look like a “national curriculum.”

The president decried the circumstance of a Nevada teacher he met who has 42 kids in her classroom and textbooks that are 10 years old. “That’s not how to build America,” he intoned remarkably flatly.

The closest thing to news

The closest we came to news, education-wise: Romney insisted he would not cut education funding. The claim sent the conservative policy wonks on my Twitter feed into spasms of irritation nearly as profane as his announcement that Big Bird would get the ax.

Romney twice mentioned that Massachusetts students routinely post the highest test scores in the nation, but did not add that the policies credited for this were enacted a decade before he was elected governor. Nor did he note that his own reforms, remarkably similar to the ideas in RTTT, were blocked by his legislature.

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Worse, Romney refuted criticisms his opponent failed to level at him: “The key to great schools is great teachers,” he said. “So I reject the idea that I don’t support teachers.”

What do you think? I commend you to the comment thread.