In bitterly partisan times, K-12 education policy has been one of the lesser-discussed issues and largely unattached to party labels in the presidential race between President Obama and challenger Mitt Romney.
Obama has promoted conservative ideas on education, from charter schools to teacher accountability standards. Romney proposes many of the same goals, but he says he would push harder for reforms in a market-based way, scaling back the federal role in education.
For example, as a way to promote charter schools and other alternatives to local public schools, Romney proposes to make federal Title I funding for poor and special-needs children portable to wherever a child goes to school, rather than sending it to the local school district automatically. Romney also proposes to publish report cards evaluating public school achievement to help parents decide where to send their children. This has been done in Ohio since 1999.
The plan “puts the federal government firmly behind the principle that public education funding should be used to empower students, not to empower sluggish and change-resistant district bureaucracies,” said Romney education adviser Martin West at a recent policy forum in Washington.
Despite the differences, the education issue has been largely absent from speeches and debates because of the amount of agreement between the candidates, said Terry Ryan, vice president for Ohio programs and policy for the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, an education policy think tank.
“And that’s unfortunate,” he said. “Education will be key not only to making America a productive society in future years but a fair and just society. The way out of poverty is education.
“If you look at President Obama and what he’s done at the policy level, there’s a lot of bipartisan support. He surprised a lot of people when he came out for charter schools.”
Romney says he would not cut education funding, but Obama often points out that the congressional Republican budgets Romney has supported include cuts to programs like Head Start early education. The president has said he wants to commit more federal money to hire math and science teachers, while Romney has resisted new spending.
Romney also would reverse Obama’s funding of the Common Core learning standards that most states have adopted.
“If you look at (Romney’s Massachusetts) governorship, he consistently cut important investments in education,” said Michele Prater, spokesperson for the Ohio Education Association, which has endorsed Obama. “Time and time again, he decided against educators and their students.”
Like Obama has, Prater cited the congressional Republican budgets Romney has supported as evidence he plans to cut education spending. She said Obama’s background of promoting education funding was a major factor in her group’s endorsement.
But Romney has praised Obama’s Race to the Top, a $4 billion program from the stimulus law that had states offer competing school-improvement plans that the government would agree to fund. Among the criteria being rewarded were an expansion of charter schools and merit pay for teachers. Ohio was one of the states to have its plan funded.
West’s primary criticism of Race to the Top was that it was too small a chunk of the $100 billion in the stimulus for education. Most of that money went to stabilizing state budgets and preventing teacher layoffs, or, in West’s words, “propping up the status quo.”
Obama education adviser Jon Schnur, who appeared with West at a forum this month at the American Enterprise Institute, said the positives of No Child Left Behind include new nationwide data and a focus on racial and income achievement gaps among students.
But the proficiency standards proved unattainable for many states, and many altered their standards to compensate. The Obama administration allowed states to get a waiver from the law’s requirements if they came up with acceptable alternative achievement measurements.
“Instead of the one-size-fits-all of No Child Left Behind, we have given incentives for state and communities to do what they want,” Schnur said.
Romney’s campaign argues that Obama should have fought harder for an overdue reauthorization of the law, with reforms, and that the waivers are a slapdash solution to a serious problem.
Brookings Institution scholar Russ Whitehurst, who worked at the Department of Education under George W. Bush, said the chances are better for a reformed No Child Left Behind to be authorized under a Romney administration that can bring the Republican House along with its plan for funding tied to the student rather than the district.
“One of the problems is there is really no one left in Congress that supports No Child, the premise behind it,” Whitehurst said. “The premise behind it is that the federal government should be carrying this big accountability stick for schools around the nation. I don’t think Republicans ever had much of an appetite for that. … It has been a wildly unpopular law. And that is really what has allowed the Obama administration to take the license it has with waivers. There’s been no one to stand up for Congress.”
Whitehurst said even though the administration has taken some overly aggressive steps, its zeal should be commended and its success will be judged years from now.
“The Obama administration is full of education reformers of a new ilk, and they are not well-aligned with the traditional political parties,” Whitehurst said. “They are folks who are terribly dissatisfied with the status quo, think education reform is critical and want to go at it in ways that are disruptive to traditional school districts and teachers unions.”
Ryan said the presidential choice in education policy can be divided this way: Romney wants to spend less money and give more authority to the states, while Obama will spend more money but with tighter federal rules.
“If you think you could do more with flexibility in how you spend the money, Romney will be more appealing with you,” said Ryan, whose organization, as a non-profit, does not endorse candidates.
“If it’s just about more money and you don’t mind some strings attached, I think you could find where President Obama is going more appealing. But there are a lot of similarities in what they think on this issue.”
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