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Education Nation -- starkly different visions from Obama, Romney


Education has peeked into the forefront during the 2012 campaign for the White House with President Obama's push for low-interest student loans - and Republican challenger Mitt Romney's contrasting views (“shop around”) on how to pay for college. Obama has also seized on comments Romney made largely dismissing the impact of class sizes, using them for a TV ad running in battleground states.

But what's at stake in this election when it comes to education goes beyond the sound bites. The two candidates, like on so many issues, would take starkly different approaches, if elected.

Mario Tama / Getty Images

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney speaks at the Clinton Global Initiative meeting on September 25, 2012 in New York City.

Obama would likely try to expand many of the same initiatives he has pursued in his first term -- a reform-minded agenda implemented largely through the Department of Education and outside the purview of Congress. That agenda includes content standards that will be implemented in at least 45 states by 2014. Obama, who has not always been in the favor of the teachers’ unions that strongly support him, would continue to try and implement reforms while working with the unions.

Romney, on the other hand, takes a more adversarial approach to unions, which he sees as a large part of the problem. Romney’s plan calls for vouchers and a restructuring of funding for special-needs and low-income students that would assign money directly to individuals instead of schools and school districts. Romney would also try to implement “report cards” and make some changes to No Child Left Behind to recruit teachers.

President Obama shares his vision for the nation's education future in a taped interview with NBC's Savannah Guthrie, discussing what it will take to prepare all Americans for the high-skill jobs of the 21st century.

What would they do – President Obama

1. Preserve funding

The president has warned against steep cuts to education and would fight to preserve funding for the Department of Education and programs like his competition-driven “Race to the Top” initiative.

“I have a question for Gov. Romney,” Obama said Aug. 22nd in Las Vegas, “how many teachers’ jobs are worth another tax cut for millionaires and billionaires?”

The stimulus included about $100 billion for education. Much of the money went to states to retain teachers. The White House says as many as 160,000 teachers’ jobs were saved.

“Federal stimulus funds appear to have blunted the effects of the economic downturn on the K-12 education sector,” said Maria Ferguson, executive director of the Center on Education Policy at George Washington University after the release of a study from the center on the stimulus’ effect on school districts. “Although many districts still had to eliminate teaching and other key staff positions, our research indicates that the situation would have been worse without the stimulus funds.”

2. “Race to the Top”

“Race to the Top,” an initiative meant to spur innovation in schools, was funded through $4.35 billion in the president’s $787 billion stimulus plan, officially known as the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

The president requested $1.35 billion for the program in his 2011 budget request. The first rounds of grants were announced in April and then September 2010.

Unlike “No Child Left Behind,” officially the “Elementary and Secondary Education Act,” Race to the Top does not set highly specific federal standards. It instead allows local school districts and states to compete over a pot of money – millions of dollars. They come up with their own plans on things like teacher evaluations and initiatives to improve student achievement and submit them to the Department of Education for approval.

The Obama administration argues this approach spurs innovation. Critics say it is too haphazard, inconsistent, and lacks accountability. Romney’s plan charges, for example, that once the money is “out the door,” the Obama administration “can only hope that change occurs.”

3. Common Core

Common Core is a set of math and reading standards developed with the Council of Chief State School Officers and and the National Governors Association. The standards are largely supported by the Obama administration, and the administration has encouraged the adoption of standards by tying them to some Race to the Top money.

Forty-six states will implement them by 2014. Some conservatives have pointed to this as a relinquishing control of state education to the federal government. Others object because the measures are untested.

4. Watering down No Child Left Behind and going around Congress

The Obama administration has largely bypassed Congress on revising NCLB. It was up for reauthorization last year, but the administration – skeptical that Congress would act – instead implemented a series of changes through the Department of Education. Obama’s Education Secretary Arne Duncan called NCLB a “slow-motion train wreck” and noted, “We must fix No Child Left Behind now, not in Washington but in real time.”

Under the Obama administration, states “can request flexibility” from NCLB provisions, “but only if they are transitioning students, teachers, and schools to a system aligned with college- and career-ready standards for all students, developing differentiated accountability systems, and undertaking reforms to support effective classroom instruction and school leadership,” the Department of Education announced on Sept. 23, 2011.

“This is Plan B,” Duncan said in June of last year, previewing the steps the administration would be taking over the next several months. “Plan A is to have Congress move. If that doesn’t happen, we can’t sit here and do nothing.”

Duncan’s criticism of NCLB, highlighted in a January Washington Post op-ed, noted that the law “created an artificial goal of proficiency that encouraged states to set low standards,” was too reliant on test scores, is “overly prescriptive” hasn’t “supported states.”

By February, 37 states and the District of Columbia had requested waivers. Now, 44 states have requested waivers and 33 have already been approved, according a spokesman for the Department of Education.

Members of Congress, who are never fans of the Executive Branch taking steps that bypass them, were not all pleased.

“The best way to fix the problems in existing law is to pass a better one,” said Sen. Tom Harkin, a Democrat from Iowa, who is chairman of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, the same committee – with the late Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-MA) at the helm – that helped write and pass the original NCLB legislation under President George W. Bush. “Given the bipartisan commitment in Congress to fixing [NCLB], it seems premature at this point to take steps outside the legislative process that would address NCLB’s problems in a temporary and piecemeal way.”

Republican John Kline, a congressman from Minnesota and chairman of the House Education and Workforce Committee, chided the president for what he saw as him seeking “sweeping authority to handpick winners and losers.”

As AP reported, “A Senate committee last fall passed a bipartisan bill to update the law, but it was opposed by the administration and did not go before the full Senate for a vote.”

And Democrats in Congress were skeptical that a bipartisan bill would emerge from the House, making it impossible to see a path forward for the legislation.

“Without a bipartisan bill coming out of the House, I believe it would be difficult to find a path forward that will draw the support we need from both sides of the aisle to be able to send a final bill to the president,” Harkin said in December of 2011. “Given that the HELP Committee was able to come to bipartisan agreement on a strong bill to reauthorize [NCLB], I sincerely hope Chairman Kline will reconsider his decision to not pursue a bipartisan bill.

5. On higher education, low-interest student loans

Obama campaigned for months on a provision to keep student-loan interest rates low, pressing Congress to act when visiting college campus after college campus. Young voters, of course, are a key constituency for the president.

The president continually pushed that government-subsidized student-loan interest rates would double if Congress didn’t approve the measure by July 1st. (The rate would have gone from 3.4 percent to 6.8 percent.)

Despite opposition from some Republicans in Congress, in late June, Congress overwhelmingly approved a one-year extension of the low rates.

Obama hammered Romney for saying that his “best advice” is for students to “shop around” for the most affordable school (more on that below).

“He said, ‘the best thing I can do for you is to tell you is to shop around,’ ” Obama said in Ohio last month. “That’s it. That’s his plan.

Governor Romney attends the Education Nation Summit, sharing his vision for the nation's education future and participates in a question and answer session.

What would they do – Mitt Romney

1. Vouchers

The most specific criticism from Romney is about the president’s opposition to vouchers for children in Washington, D.C., known as the “D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program,” championed by House Speaker John Boehner.

A bill allocating $60 million over the next five years passed easily in the House, but has not come up in the Democratic-controlled Senate. Democrats argue it takes resources and attention away from public schools. Romney and Republicans contend Democrats are bowing to the teachers unions.

“Instead of eliminating the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program as President Obama has proposed, I will expand it to offer more students a chance to attend a better school,” Romney said in a May speech focused on education before The Latino Coalition’s Annual Economic Summit. “It will be a model for parental choice programs across the nation.”

Romney said in that speech in May that that too many poor and disabled students receive “a third-world education” in the United States. To help remedy this, he would restructure Title I and IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act) funds, meant for schools with low-income students and students with disabilities. Instead of assign the money to school districts and whole schools, Romney would want to assign specific amounts to those students and allow them to choose to attend better-performing schools.

There are a couple of potential problems with this approach: (a) “Any proposal to radically shift the use of that money would be almost certain to face a host of administrative, budgetary, and political hurdles from the Congress and statehouses on down,” Education Week wrote.

The New America Foundation similarly wrote that Romney’s proposal “undermines local control of schools, a concept many conservatives hold dear,” it writes. “Not only would states be required to implement open enrollment systems and transfer funds among districts, but districts and schools could no longer target their Title I funds to the schools or grades of their choosing. If candidate Romney becomes President Romney, we predict a long and tough road ahead for his education proposals, likely with resistance from both sides of the aisle.”  

And (b): There might not be enough money between the two programs to pay for the schooling of all the students Romney would want to support.

There is about $26 billion allocated for Title I and IDEA. There were about 21 million low-income students benefiting from Title I funding in the 2009-2010 school year, according to the National Center for Education Statistics – and another 5.8 million students covered under IDEA, according to Education Week.

That means the 26 million or so students would only get about $1,000 each.

2. Report cards

Romney pledges to “provide better information for parents through straightforward public report cards and will empower them to hold districts and states responsible for results.”

Of the report cards, Romney said in his May speech: “Parents shouldn’t have to navigate a cryptic evaluation system to figure out how their kids’ schools are performing.  States must provide a simple-to-read and widely available public report card that evaluates each school.  These report cards will provide accurate and easy-to-understand information about student and school performance.  States will continue to design their own standards and tests, but the report cards will provide information that parents can use to make informed choices.”

According to the Romney campaign’s white paper on education: “States will be required to provide report cards that evaluate schools and districts on an A through F or similar scale based primarily on their contribution to achievement growth,”. “These report cards will provide accurate and easy-to-understand information about student and school performance, as well as information about per-pupil spending in the local district. States will continue to design their own standards and tests, but information on the state’s National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) performance will appear on the school and district report cards, and the grading system will be standardized so that states with poor NAEP performance cannot assign artificially high grades to their schools.”

3. Attracting good teachers, eliminating seniority for hiring, firing

Romney’s plan would “eliminate” what he calls “NCLB’s ineffective ‘highly qualified’ certification requirement.

He would also “block grant” money “for states that adopt policies focused on improving teacher effectiveness. For instance, states seeking block grants will be required to establish evaluation systems based in part on effectiveness in advancing student achievement, reward effective teachers and principals with additional compensation and advancement opportunities, eliminate or reform teacher tenure, streamline the certification process for becoming a teacher, and prohibit seniority-based transfer and dismissal rules (including Last In, First Out layoffs).”

That is known colloquially as LIFO, an aspect of seniority that is a sticking point for teachers unions.

4. Seeking distance from NCLB

As noted above, Romney’s plan mentions NCLB, but he has largely distanced himself from the plan that was the chief domestic accomplishment of his Republican predecessor in the White House, George W. Bush.

Romney indicates a move away from federal standards. His white paper, instead says his administration would “work closely with Congress to strengthen NCLB by reducing federal micromanagement.”

5. Romney against Common Core, then for it -- just not tying federal money to standards

During an October 2011 interview with Huckabee on FOX, Romney praised Obama Education Secretary Arne Duncan for trying to “reward school systems that reward teachers for doing a good job, that remove bad teachers, that test kids to see how the kids are doing.”

But he added, “By the way, not everything that Arne Duncan is doing do I agree with. So, for instance, this national core curriculum they are pushing and trying to get states to take that on. I don’t like a national curriculum.  I like states to be able to draft their own curriculum.”

But in May, before Romney’s education speech, his campaign indicated he had shifted position. Education Week: “Romney's campaign staff said he is supportive of the Common Core State Standards, but thinks the Obama administration has gone too far in encouraging states to adopt them. Those policies ‘effectively are an attempt to manipulate states into’ adopting common core, said Oren Cass, Romney's domestic policy director on a call with reporters.”

Romney also said in a 2010 Fox interview that the federal government has a role in “overseeing our schools, or some portion of our schools.”

He does not mention “Common Core” in his white paper.

6. Supporting testing, “standing up” to unions

In 2007, Romney said he supported NCLB and, “I like testing in our schools.”

In 2012, he hinted at testing as part of the solution as well as “standing up” to unions.

“We looked at what drives good education in our state,” Romney said in a September 2011 debate. “What we found is the best thing for education is great teachers, hire the very best and brightest to be teachers, pay them properly, make sure that you have school choice, test your kids to see if they are meeting the standards that need to be met, and make sure that you put the parents in charge. And as president I will stand up to the National teachers unions.”

7. Supported temporary student-loan extension but opposes long-term government intervention - “shop around”

In April, Romney said, “I fully support the effort to extend the low interest rate on student loans. There was some concern that that would expire halfway through the year, and I support extending the temporary relief on interest rates for students as a result of – as a result of student loans, obviously – in part because of the extraordinarily poor conditions in the job market.”

But Romney has also said the “best advice” he could give students trying to figure out how to afford college is to “shop around” and not take out loans.

“The best thing I can do for you is to tell you to shop around and compare tuition in different places,” Romney told a student in Ohio in March. “And make sure you get the education you want for the cost you want. Make sure you can get your degree in four years – or less. Work hard. Get done in two-and-a-half years. Recognize, I mean, that college is expensive. You don’t want to have huge debts. And I know it would be popular for me to stand up and say I’m going to give you government money to pay for your college. But I’m not going to do promise that.”

He added, “My best advice is find a great institution of higher learning, find one that has the right price. Shop around. In America, this idea of competition, it works. And don’t just go to the one that has the highest price. Go to one that has a little lower price where you can get a good education and hopefully you’ll find that and don’t take on too much debt, and don’t  expect the government to forgive the debt that you take on. Recognize you’re going to have to pay it back. I want to make sure every kid in this country that wants to go to college gets the chance to go to college. If you can’t afford it, scholarships are available. Shop around for loans. Make sure you go to a place that’s reasonably priced. And if you can think about serving the country because that’s a way to get all that education for free.”

8. Continue Pell Grants (and the Ryan budget)

The budget proposed by Congressman Paul Ryan, Romney’s pick to be his vice president, would put a hard cap on Pell Grants spending. But Romney, at a Univision forum -- meant to appeal to Latino voters – took a different position, saying he would want them to “go with the rate of inflation.”

“I care about your education and helping people of modest means get a good education and we’ll continue a Pell Grant program,” he said. “I think the Republican budget called for a Pell Grants being capped out at their current high level. My inclination would be to have them go with the rate of inflation. I think it’s important in higher education that we get serious about the fact that the inflation of tuition has been much faster than inflation generally. And my view is we have to hold down the rate of tuition increases and fee increases in higher education.”

The candidates have sparred over how much the Ryan budget would cut. The Obama campaign charges it could mean 20 percent across-the-board cuts to domestic programs. But it’s unclear how cuts in the Ryan budget would be applied. Romney has said, although he’s broadly supportive of the Ryan budget, he’s not in favor of every detail.

9. Welcome the private sector

But when it comes to college loans, “Romney favors bolstering the role for the private sector, which he contends has been decimated by the Obama administration's choice to scrap the Federal Family Education Loan Program and ensure that all loans originate through the U.S. Department of Education,” Education Week writes.

“We welcome private sector participating instead of pushing it away,” said Oren Cass said, Romney’s domestic policy adviser.

Obama has criticized Romney for that, charging that would cause rates to increase.

10. Class-size controversy

At a charter school in Philadelphia back in May, Romney ran into tough questioning from a teacher when he said, in talking about the success of schools in other countries: “It’s not the classroom size that is driving the success of those school systems.”

At a GOP debate in Florida, Romney was more blunt. “[A]ll the talk about we need smaller classroom size, look that's promoted by the teachers’ unions to hire more teachers,” Romney said, adding, “[A]s president, I will stand up to the National Teachers Unions.”

Of course, as First Read has written previously, Obama’s pushes for performance pay, teacher evaluations tied to student achievement, and support for charter schools, have rankled those unions.

Part of the Chicago teachers’ strike, in fact, had to do with teacher evaluations. Obama’s former Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel is mayor of Chicago.

*** UPDATE *** The post has been updated with the most recent number of states that have requested and been approved for waivers from No Child Left Behind.

*** UPDATE 2 *** The section on Common Core has been adjusted.