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Obama and Romney Draw Battle Lines over Education

05/07/2012

The Fiscal Times, May 7, 2012

On the surface at least, President Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney see eye to eye on a number of key education issues:

Both politicians place great store in standardized testing to evaluate teacher performance and student progress, and both generally back former President George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind program. Both favor charter schools as an alternative to failing public schools and merit pay to attract better teachers. And both have had their run-ins with teachers unions.

Just recently, the former Massachusetts governor agreed with Obama that Congress should spend an additional $6 billion this year to block a scheduled doubling of the interest rate on millions of federal college loans. Addressing the problem of mounting college debt has become a political rallying cry across the country.

Yet on critical issues of funding and government aide to colleges and local schools, the two rivals couldn’t be further apart, and some experts say those are the most telling and significant differences between the wo rivals. Romney insists that the Department of Education has grown too big and intrusive on state and local officials, and has pledged to either sharply downsize it or merge it with another federal agency.

“From what I see the basic difference between the two is that Romney wants to do less in education and Obama wants to do more,” said Jack Jennings, an education expert and founder of the Center on Education Policy. “Throughout the primary campaign, Romney was very critical of federal aid and said he thought the federal government should basically reduce its presence in education.” The philosophical gulf between Obama and Romney on federal spending for education is wide. Obama’s fiscal 2013 budget plan calls  for maintaining the maximum Pell Grants award, increasing the Perkins Loan Program, providing needed support for community colleges to meet the needs of local and regional job markets, and boosting teacher education programs at institutions that serve minorities.

The proposed budget includes $30 billion to modernize at least 35,000 schools and $30 billion to help states and localities retain and hire first responders and educators. Moreover, as part of his economic stimulus package shortly after taking office, the president included $100 billion that saved tens of thousands of teachers’ jobs.

By contrast, Romney has said repeatedly, “We need to get the federal government out of education.” And he has enthusiastically embraced the House Republican budget drafted by Paul Ryan that would over the coming decade slash discretionary spending on domestic programs  by nearly $1.2 trillion below the austere funding caps that Congress enacted last August.

Current levels of spending on education, training, employment services and other programs would be reduced by an average of 20 percent between 2013 and 2022 under Ryan’s blueprint, according to an analysis by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP). At the same time, the $34 billion a year pot of discretionary and mandatory funds available for providing Pell Grants to about 9 million low-income students attend college would take a major hit and force significant cuts in benefits and eligibility.

It could also exacerbate a troubling trend of more and more students failing to complete their studies, with an adverse impact on the economy. Just 56 percent of those who enroll in a four-year college earn a bachelor’s degree. Moreover, the American Institutes for Research concluded last year that students seeking a bachelor’s degree but fail to graduate within six years cost the economy $4.5 billion in lost earnings and taxes to state and federal governments.

“The one sure way to end cycles of poverty is for students from poor families who are capable, willing and able to go to college,” Richard Kogan, a senior fellow with the CBPP, told the Fiscal Times. “To say, ‘Sorry, we’re pulling away your grant, you’re out of luck,’ seems like perhaps the least defensible type of education cut you could imagine.”

Romney said he supported the Ryan budget the day it was unveiled."I applaud it," he said. "It's an excellent piece of work, and very much needed."  Ryan’s budget has one overarching goal – to reduce the ballooning federal deficit.  But many believe that targeting some areas of education will result in an even less well-educated workforce, and therefore less tax revenue.

As the general election campaign heats up, Obama and Romney have begun tailoring their message to appeal to college students and other young voters. Obama has repeatedly made appearances on college campuses and late night television shows to voice concern about the high cost of college and mounting student debt, and has threatened to reduce funding to academies that don’t control costs.  He has also urged Congress to pass legislation to prevent the interest rate on Stafford college loans from doubling to 6.8 percent on July 1.

Romney, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, has agreed with Obama on the need to block the scheduled rise in student loan rates. At the same time, however, Romney blamed the administration for an economy in which “50 percent of recent college graduates are unemployed or underemployed.”

Some education experts characterize Romney's education policy as moderate to right-of-center, and by no means a radical or major reformer. The former governor and wealthy business executive views improvements in education as a key to enhancing the U.S. competitive edge abroad and sparking an economic revival at home.

Obama by comparison is more of a centrist – a leader who has used financial incentives and the bully pulpit to encourage school districts and states to be more creative in raising teaching standards and grades, but someone who has yet to carve out a truly progressive stance.

“I think on a level of principle and policy belief, they are similar,” Heath Brown, an associate professor of education at Seton Hall University, told the Fiscal Times.  “They both believe in accountability, they both have shown a faith in testing as a basis on which accountability can be done, they both seem to care a lot about teacher quality.”

Richard D. Kahlenberg, a senior fellow with the Century Foundation, agrees that “if you look at the range of issues on which President Obama and Mitt Romney agree and disagree, there is probably more agreement on education than many of those issues.”

Romney had a mixed record on education during his one term as governor of Massachuettts. On the plus side, he helped launch the John and Abigail Adams Scholarship, which provides a four-year tuition-free scholarship to any state institution for any Massachusetts student who scores among the top 25 percent in his or her school.

Romney also championed the concept of heightened accountability for teachers and administrators, and backed a requirement that high school students pass a rigorous test to graduate. During the third year of his administration, the state’s fourth and eighth grade students ranked first in the nation in both reading and math – a major achievement. Romney also paved the way for an expansion of charter schools by vetoing a Democratic bill passed by the state legislature that would have imposed a moratorium on any new charter schools.

Romney drafted other reforms, including the recruitment of 1,000 skilled math and science instructors, bonuses of as much as $15,000 a year for top-performing teachers, and new intervention programs for failing schools. “If our goal is to have great teachers for our children, we have to recruit from among the best to produce the best,” he wrote in his book “No Apology.”

But he clashed with teachers’ unions and criticized their calls for smaller classes. In dealing with a $3 billion budget shortfall he inherited, Romney slashed higher education, cut revenue to local governments, and raised stiff fees on college students and their parents.

Obama, a Harvard Law School graduate and former University of Chicago law professor, picked up an early endorsement from the National Education Association, the largest teachers union, last July. Many teachers reportedly are worried about the prospect of a Republican in the White House, particularly as their rights to organize are being challenged by GOP lawmakers in Ohio and Wisconsin.

But while NEA officials and teachers say they strongly support Obama for a second term, there is widespread dissatisfaction among teachers about federal education policies – especially concerning Obama’s promotion of charter schools, and accountability policies that they say unfairly penalize teachers.

Teachers are particularly unhappy with “Race to the Top,”  the presidential initiative that awards grants to states that embrace education overhauls such as linking teacher evaluations to student test scores and opening more charter schools. Last year, NEA members voted no confidence in Race to the Top and no one from the Obama administration spoke at the convention.

Teachers and schools districts are also clamoring for changes to the No Child Left Behind program that seeks to raise educational standards by forcing schools to reach 100 percent proficiency in reading and math tests by 2014 or lose funding.  The administration last September granted waivers to some states and has introduced reforms of the law to Congress. But Republicans are keeping Obama’s proposals bottled up on Capitol Hill at least until after the election.