Published Online: January 6, 2012
Published in Print: January 11, 2012, as GOP Candidates Eye Scaling Back Federal K-12 Role
Updated: March 23, 2012

GOP Hopefuls Favor Scaled-Back K-12 Federal Role

U.S. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., right, announces that he is endorsing Republican presidential candidate and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney at a town hall meeting in Manchester, N.H. The two squared off for the GOP candidacy in 2008 before Mr. McCain won the nomination. Mr. Romney has touted his record on K-12 education as Massachusetts governor.
—Chip Somodevilla/Getty

Though education has played second fiddle so far to other domestic issues in the race for the Republican presidential nomination, the narrowing field includes GOP candidates with compatible views on scaling back the federal role in K-12, but big contrasts in policy specifics and experience.

President Barack Obama, meanwhile, is expected to put a strong emphasis on his own K-12 agenda and achievements—including such signature programs as the Race to the Top and a waiver plan for unpopular provisions of the No Child Left Behind Act—as his re-election effort gains steam.

A look at the education records of the GOP candidates illustrates some common themes, along with differences in style and policy nuance:

• Former Gov. Mitt Romney of Massachusetts, who won the Jan. 3 Iowa caucuses by just eight votes, has an extensive record on education from his time as a state chief executive, and has offered specifics on a number of topics. He’s championed standardized testing and supported the NCLB law’s emphasis on accountability. But he’s also favored a more robust role for the states in K-12 policy.

• Former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, the close runner-up to Mr. Romney in Iowa, voted for the NCLB law while in the Senate. He has championed special education issues and autism research. He’s also said a top-down education system doesn’t serve parents well, and is known as staunch conservative on social issues. During the debate over the creation of NCLB, he pushed an amendment that critics said promoted an "anti-evolution" agenda in the classroom.

• U.S. Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, who placed third in Iowa, has long said the federal government has no place in schools, and favors abolishing the U.S. Department of Education, and phasing out federal student loans.

• Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, who has teamed up with U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and the Rev. Al Sharpton to call for rigorous school accountability, has said he’d like to shrink the U.S. Department of Education and expand school choice options.

• Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who once led the candidate pack, has clashed with President Obama in a far-from-theoretical way on K-12 policy: His state was one of a handful to opt out of the Race to the Top competition.

• Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman signed a bill requiring that his state's accountability system trump the NCLB law. With millions in Title I money at stake, the state backed down.

The common emphasis on a diminished federal role in K-12 poses a challenge for the GOP presidential contenders hoping to push their own sweeping education proposals and stand out on the issue, said Patrick McGuinn, an associate professor of political science and education at Drew University, in Madison, N.J. “It’s a bit of pickle for Republicans,” he said.

Romney Specifics

GOP Candidates

Education Stances at a Glance


Newt Gingrich

Professional Background: History professor at West Georgia College, in Carrollton, Ga.; Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives from 1995 to 1999

No Child Left Behind Act/Federal Role in Education: As speaker of the House in 1995, Mr. Gingrich lent his support to an effort to abolish the U.S. Department of Education. Later, he championed the Education Equality Project, which advocates rigorous accountability.

Teachers: The Education Equality Project favors placing “effective” teachers and principals in low-performing schools, supporting those that need help, and making “tough decisions” about educators who don’t prove effective.

School Choice: In 1995, Mr. Gingrich supported language in a District of Columbia appropriations bill that would have created a voucher program for the city’s children. The program became a reality in 2004, after he left office. The Education Equality Project also advocates expanding charter schools.

Classroom Issues: As speaker of the House, Mr. Gingrich endorsed a bill that would have guaranteed students the right to pray and display religious symbols in public schools.


Jon Huntsman

Professional Background: Staff assistant to President Ronald Reagan in 1981; U.S. ambassador to Singapore, 1992; worked in Huntsman Corp., family chemical business; governor of Utah from 2005 to 2009; ambassador to China from 2009 to 2011

No Child Left Behind Act/Federal Role in Education: As governor of Utah in 2005, Mr. Huntsman signed a bill saying the state’s own accountability system takes precedence over the federal law. The state eventually backed down because of fears it would lose federal funding. More recently, during a presidential debate, Mr. Huntsman said the law “hasn’t worked for this country.”

Teachers: In 2007, Gov. Huntsman sought to deal with a teacher shortage by offering raises and one-time bonuses to keep teachers in-state. He also sought to limit class size in grades K-3 to just 20 students.

School Choice: As governor, Mr. Huntsman signed a law that would have offered students vouchers of up to $3,000 to attend private schools. But voters failed to pass a referendum upholding the voucher law. Gov. Huntsman later was criticized for what voucher proponents saw as his tepid support of the issue.

Classroom Issues: As governor, he sought to enhance teacher training for math and science teachers.


Ron Paul

Professional Background: Obstetrician; member of the U.S. House of Representatives from Texas since 1997

No Child Left Behind Act/Federal Role in Education: Rep. Paul was one of just 41 members of Congress to vote against the No Child Left Behind Act in 2001. He has called for the elimination of the U.S. Department of Education and for the gradual elimination of the student-loan program.

Teachers: He recently voted against federal money to help prevent teacher layoffs in the federal economic-stimulus program and the Education Jobs Act.

School Choice: Mr. Paul advocates a $5,000 tax credit to help parents who home school their children cover the cost of books, computers, and other curricular materials.

Classroom Issues: He promotes the idea that home-school diplomas should be equivalent to regular high school diplomas, and does not want federal mandates on home-school curricula. (There aren’t any right now.)


Rick Perry

Professional Background: Served in the U.S. Air Force from 1972 to 1977; lieutenant governor of Texas from 1999 to 2000; governor of Texas since 2000

No Child Left Behind Act/Federal Role in Education: Gov. Perry has proposed eliminating the U.S. Department of Education. He’s also said he is “not a fan” of the NCLB law and its federal mandates, according to a Houston Chronicle story. Texas was also one of just four states that sat out both rounds of the Obama administration’s signature Race to the Top grant competition. He has also criticized his rivals, including Gov. Romney, for being in favor of “Obama’s Race to the Top.”

Teachers: In 2005, Gov. Perry bypassed the Texas legislature to create the state’s first merit-pay program, rewarding effective teachers in disadvantaged schools. Still, last year, he presided over a cut to that program.

School Choice: During his gubernatorial campaign, Gov. Perry expressed support for expanding virtual schools. As Texas governor, he advocated a school voucher program for disadvantaged children in urban districts.

Classroom Issues: Under Gov. Perry, Texas was one of four states to opt out of the Common Core State Standards Initiative, which is aimed at adopting more uniform, higher standards in schools. During his tenure, scientists expressed outrage over state board of education-approved standards, arguing they weakened the teaching of evolution. At an August 2011 campaign stop in New Hampshire, Gov. Perry told one voter that Texas teaches both evolution and intelligent design. The fact-checking project Politifact rated that statement as false.


Mitt Romney

Professional Background: Business executive, served as chief executive officer of Bain & Co.; governor of Massachusetts from 2003 to 2007

No Child Left Behind Act/Federal Role in Education: In 1994, when Mr. Romney ran for U.S. Senate, he wanted to eliminate the U.S. Department of Education. But when he ran for president in 2008, he was one of the staunchest defenders of the NCLB law on the campaign trail. For instance, during a debate at the Reagan Presidential Library on Jan. 30, 2008, he singled out the law as one of President George W. Bush’s greatest accomplishments, saying it “takes the ball forward, not backward.” He also said he was a fan of the NCLB law’s testing regime. More recently, however, he’s said the “real answer” is to get education back to the states.

Teachers: Mr. Romney was an early proponent of pay-for-performance measures, although a bill he helped champion on the issue did not make it through the legislature.

School Choice: As governor of Massachusetts, Mr. Romney was known as a proponent of charter schools. He fought off attempts to place a moratorium on their expansion.

Classroom Issues: Mr. Romney pushed for science to be added to the state’s assessment system.


Rick Santorum

Professional Background: Attorney; U.S. House of Representatives from Pennsylvania from 1991 to 1995; member of the U.S. Senate from 1995 to 2007

No Child Left Behind Act/Federal Role in Education: Mr. Santorum voted in favor of the No Child Left Behind Act, but recently he said the education system “doesn’t serve the customer,” by which he means parents.

Teachers: He introduced an amendment to the reauthorization of the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act to lessen paperwork burdens for special education teachers.

School Choice: The former congressman supports home schooling, and in 2001, he enrolled some of his own children in an online charter school.

Classroom Issues: He has a mixed record when it comes to the teaching of intelligent design and evolution. He criticized the Dover, Pa., school district for mandating the teaching of intelligent design and going to court over it. But he also sought to include language in the NCLB law saying that children should understand alternatives to evolutionary theory. He has been an advocate for special education and sought more money for autism research.

Mr. Romney, who went into this week’s New Hampshire primary with strong prospects, has an extensive record on education from his time as Massachusetts governor. He also offers specifics on a number of K-12 issues in his 2010 book No Apology: The Case for American Greatness.

Generally, Mr. Romney portrays himself as supporting the public schools’ role in preparing students for a changing workforce, and names education as a civil right. He expresses his strong preference for using standardized tests to measure student achievement, and credits the NCLB law for helping to advance accountability.

And he uses the book to tout his own record on education in Massachusetts. As governor, for instance, Mr. Romney threatened in 2006 to withhold state funding from schools in New Bedford, Mass., after the mayor there said he would let students earn a high school diploma without passing the state exit exam. The mayor changed his tune.

Mr. Romney created a merit scholarship for students who scored in the top quartile of their high schools on the state graduation test. The scholarship could be used at any state institution and was worth about $2,000 a year. He fought off a moratorium on the creation of charter schools, and pushed to include science as part of the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System.

He also discusses in the book a number of teacher initiatives, including his proposal—rejected by the state legislature—for districts to provide an alternative pay structure for teachers. He suggests setting a high bar for education schools and opening up alternative pathways into the profession.

Mr. Romney favors increased salaries for beginning teachers to entice more high-achieving college students into education careers. And he wants to see a movement away from a “lockstep seniority-based” pay grid.

Anne Wass, who served as vice president and then president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, an affiliate of the National Education Association, said the relationship between the union and Mr. Romney “was not good” when he was governor.

“He really had a closed-door policy,” she said. “He didn’t want to meet with us.”

Robert Costrell, who served as a top adviser to Mr. Romney in Massachusetts, disputed that characterization.

“His door was not closed,” Mr. Costrell, now a professor at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville, said. While Mr. Romney’s relationship with the union was “not always productive,” the governor looked for common ground on teacher issues with when he could, including helping one district craft a differential-pay plan for mathematics and science teachers, Mr. Costrell said.

Mr. Romney has a long roster of education advisers. His education co-chairs are: Nina Rees, who served as the Education Department’s assistant deputy secretary for innovation and improvement under President George W. Bush; Marty West, a Harvard University education professor; and F. Philip Handy, who chaired the Florida state school board under former Gov. Jeb Bush. Mr. Handy worked as an education adviser on Sen. John McCain of Arizona’s presidential campaign in 2008.

Santorum and NCLB

Mr. Santorum was a proponent of the NCLB law when it passed Congress in 2001. But before voting for it, he sought to insert language that would have encouraged biology teachers to discuss controversies behind the theory of evolution with their students. The provision ultimately wasn’t included in the law.

In the Senate, Mr. Santorum was also active on special education issues. He was co-author of a bill with then-Sen. Christopher J. Dodd, D-Conn., that would have boosted funding for research on autism, and he fought to reduce paperwork for special education teachers.

The education of Mr. Santorum’s own children was the subject of controversy at one point. In 2004, he withdrew his children from a Pennsylvania cyber charter school after questions were raised about whether he could educate them at state taxpayers’ expense when his family lived most of the year in a Washington suburb.

On the presidential campaign trail, Mr. Santorum has made limited comments about education. In one exchange, during a Sept. 22 debate, he said schools in general don’t serve “the customer,” meaning parents. That has to change, he said, but he didn’t say elaborate on how he would make that happen.

Paul as Skeptic

Rep. Paul arguably has the field’s most consistent record on education, and one that dovetails with his overall philosophy of a tightly circumscribed role for the federal government. He was one of just 41 members of Congress, including 33 Republicans, to vote against the NCLB legislation in 2001.

The Texas congressman has introduced a bill to scrap the federal Education Department. And he has called for phasing out the federal student-loan program. During a debate Nov. 9, he called the program “a total failure. ... I mean a trillion dollars of debt? To be dumped on the taxpayer. ... There’s nothing more dramatically failing than that program.”

Gingrich’s Ideas

Mr. Gingrich has campaigned hard on his record as an activist speaker of the House, though education made up a relatively limited part of that portfolio.

In 1995, Mr. Gingrich backed an effort by his fellow Republicans to eliminate the Education Department, or to combine it with the U.S. Department of Labor. And domestic discretionary spending—including for the Education Department—was a major sticking point between Gingrich-era Republicans in Congress and President Bill Clinton.

But as speaker, Mr. Gingrich largely let the House education committee chairman, Rep. William F. Goodling, R-Pa., spearhead K-12 policy, Mr. Goodling said in an interview. “He left it entirely up to me,” said the former lawmaker, who retired from Congress in 2001. “He knew I was an educator and got the issues.”

Since leaving Congress in 1999, Mr. Gingrich has been more active on the K-12 scene.

In 2009, he visited at least three cities with Secretary Duncan and Mr. Sharpton, the civil rights activist and former Democratic presidential contender, to call for raising academic standards, lifting state caps on high-quality charter schools, and greater accountability. The visits were part of Mr. Gingrich’s work with the Education Equality Project, a nonprofit organization started by Mr. Sharpton and Joel I. Klein, the former New York City schools chancellor.

On the campaign trail, Mr. Gingrich has again called for “shrinking” the federal Department of Education. Lisa Graham Keegan, a former Arizona state schools chief, whom Mr. Gingrich has enlisted as an education adviser, said that position “absolutely squares” with the former speaker’s work with Mr. Duncan and Mr. Sharpton.

“He was simply advocating for the view that all children must have access to schools that work,” she said.

Ms. Keegan, who also served as an adviser to the 2008 McCain campaign, is now the president of the Breakthrough Network, an organization that connects school choice advocates. Also joining the former speaker as an education adviser is Michael Moe, the chief executive officer of GSV Asset Management Center, an investment company.

Obama on Horizon

The eventual Republican nominee can expect to face off against an incumbent president who has made education a high-profile part of his agenda.

For instance, education aid was a big component of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the economic-stimulus program enacted in 2009, and President Obama championed $10 billion in emergency money to prevent teacher layoffs in 2010. He has made competitive-grant programs, such as the stimulus-funded Race to the Top and Investing in Education initiatives, top priorities.

Related Blog

And the administration has heeded criticism of the NCLB law, most recently with last year’s move to offer states waivers of some of the law’s provisions, albeit with strings attached. The White House over the summer even hosted a splashy unveiling of that plan.

Voters can expect to see similar events in the future, Mr. McGuinn of Drew University said.

“There’s some concern about Obama’s leadership” nationally, said Mr. McGuinn. But education, and the waivers in particular, he said, are one of the areas where the president can point to action.

“NCLB waivers say, ‘Look, I’m a leader. This is a law that everyone recognizes is problematic ... I’ve come up with this plan [to fix it] using my regulatory authority,” Mr. McGuinn said.

He added: “It’s a smart one-two punch for the Obama campaign.”

Vol. 31, Issue 15, Pages 1,24-25

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