Education And The Election

Nov 2, 2012

Education ranks high on the list of issues voters care about, according to a September survey by the Pew Research Center.   But voters haven’t heard many specifics on education policy from either President Barack Obama or Governor Mitt Romney during the campaign. 

That may be because the candidates share many similar views.

State Representative Gary Holder-Winfield describes education’s role in this presidential campaign as "rhetorical".

"There hasn’t been a real substantive discussion. We have this discussion about we need to be competitive, but we don’t know have boundaries of what that means."

With jobs the number one issue for voters, the presidential candidates have only very broadly linked education to the economy.  

In the final weeks of the campaign,  President Obama has tried to shift the conversation more toward education. 

Here’s the president during the third debate. "It is true that in order for us to be competitive we’re going to have to make some smart choices right now. Cutting our education budget, that’s not a smart choice. That will not help us compete with China."

Mitt Romney replied by saying that it was important to make the US once again, an attractive place to start businesses. "And that’s not going to happen by just hiring teachers. Looking I love to hire..I love teachers. And I’m happy to have states and communities that want to hire teachers do that."

..which led to this closing exchange with moderator Bob Schieffer.  

MR: "But I love teachers. But I want to get our private sector growing and I know how to do it."

BS:  "I think we all love teachers. Gentlemen, thank you so much."

The Obama campaign has released several late ads attacking Romney’s views on teachers. 

But Joy Resmovits, national education reporter at the Huffington Post, says Obama and Romney have largely steered clear of education because in many ways, their views are a lot alike.  "They both think that teachers are key to school quality and so teachers should have serious formal evaluations and be accountable to higher standards. They both think that students should be accountable to higher standards and exams should measure college preparedness."

They also both support charter schools.  Where the candidates differ is on what the federal government’s role should be in education.   

Their top school policy advisors held a debate of their own recently at Columbia University Teachers College.

The Romney campaign’s Phil Handy said the federal government should play two roles in public education. "The collection of data, honest data…And secondly I think its to create an environment that allows a freer ability for choice. We believe that no child should be obligated to go to school just because they were born in certain zip code."

Mitt Romney has called for a system where parents of low-income and special ed kids take their share of federal education dollars to the public, charter or private school of their choosing. For instance, if an urban student attended a suburban school the federal money would go to the receiving district.  Or families could use the money toward tuition at a private or parochial school.

Critics say the federal share would likely be only a fraction of the cost at most schools – public or private.  So states or local districts would probably have to chip in, or families would have to make up the difference for private school tuition.   

Jon Schnur, top education advisor for the Obama campaign, pointed to the president’s accomplishments during his first term.

He said President Obama acts on his beliefs.  He used as an example the Common Core standards, adopted by 46 states to raise academic levels. "And so incented the adoption of those standards in Race To The Top,  and set aside over 400 million dollars of stimulus funding in order to support willing states to design the new Common Core of assessments.  He thinks the states should determine those standards but the federal government should play a supportive role in helping to finance making that happen."

"The messaging from Obama on education is pretty interesting to me."  Again, education reporter Joy Resmovits.

"Throughout his tenure, he’s had to both appease the teachers’ unions which are a huge Democratic base while also, changing the teaching profession in the way that sometimes unions don’t like. I think John Schnur is trying to say Barack Obama understands both sides.  He wants to reform education, but he believes in investing in it."

David Low teaches engineering and math at a Connecticut high school along the shoreline."The surprising thing about the last four, eight or maybe even twelve years is how close the two parties have come on their stances toward public education."

Low says that’s interesting…"and a little bit disturbing when it comes to education because we’re looking at a new model and mostly in the political sector they’re looking at improving the old model."

But Low may have to wait until after the election to find out where the next president stands on that question.