Opinion Blog


Rick Hess Straight Up

Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

How Romney Should Grade Obama on Education

By Rick Hess — May 16, 2012 4 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Given concerns about the economy, jobs, and health care, education policy isn’t likely to be a make-or-break issue in November’s presidential election. But it matters a great deal, nonetheless.

As was the case for George W. Bush in 2000 and Barack Obama in 2008, Mitt Romney’s stance on education will powerfully color how Americans view his broader domestic agenda. Romney’s been largely silent on the issue. But now’s the time for him to speak. A good place for Romney to start is by explaining what Obama has gotten right during the past four years--and then pointing out precisely where the president got things wrong.

First, the good. The president and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan have broadened the Bush administration’s school reform agenda, bringing more attention to teacher evaluation, teacher pay, charter schooling, and higher education. They’ve used their bully pulpit to argue the need to spend school dollars more intelligently and challenge colleges to control their costs. And they’ve acknowledged the need for flexibility when it comes to some of the burdensome elements of the No Child Left Behind Act, while singing the praises of innovation more generally.

On these counts, credit is due. But while Obama’s education efforts have featured good ideas and terrific rhetoric, he has also been guilty of the same troubling hubris and undisciplined policymaking that have characterized much of his administration.

First, his reform playbook has relied on a prescriptive, sprawling role for Washington bureaucrats. While his marquee Race to the Top program sounded sexy from a distance, it was in reality a 19-point federal checklist in which states and their big-dollar consultants competed to see who could most enthusiastically promise to toe the president’s agenda. (All of the dozen winners, it should be noted, now lag behind on implementing their pledged reforms.) In dangling much-needed flexibility on NCLB in the form of waivers, Secretary Duncan bizarrely opted to require that states adopt various Obama priorities--which are found nowhere in the law itself--to get relief. This novel constitutional strategy sets a troubling precedent of unbounded executive authority.

Second, even when it comes to the putatively “state-led, voluntary” push for common math and reading standards, the president has been unable to resist the urge to get Uncle Sam involved. Instead of letting states implement the reforms under their own power, they’ve tried to pick winners and losers: rewarding Race to the Top applicants with money for promising to adopt the Common Core standards, berating South Carolina for expressing second thoughts about the standards, and spending $350 million in federal funds to design tests and materials built on the standards. All of this helped turn a sensible effort into a heated debate about federal overreach.

Third, for all the administration’s handsome talk about the need to do more with less, the whole of the Obama school reform strategy has rested on pledges of huge new spending. The president’s recipe for community colleges? About $10 billion or so. For school “turnarounds”? Another $3.5 billion. In fact, the much-heralded Race to the Top program itself was funded with $4.35 billion in crumbs from Obama’s more than $100 billion in education-related stimulus borrowing that mostly went to propping up the status quo. Most recently, of course, the president proposed $30 billion to continue the supersize subsidy on Stafford loans.

And while the Obama team deserves credit for supporting charter schools and “innovation,” it has also shown a troubling hostility to dynamic new problem-solvers in education. The administration has essentially declared war on for-profit educational providers, setting out draconian new regulations for colleges while restricting their participation in the K-12 “investing in innovation” fund. One tiny problem: It’s precisely the for-profits that have shown the most willingness to rethink old models, hustle to serve more students, find cost savings, and develop and best use new technologies. The president has also demonstrated hostility towards school voucher programs, doing his best to strangle the Washington Scholarship Fund (despite its positive results and passionate local support) and to dismiss major voucher initiatives in Indiana and Louisiana.

The president has done enough right to win plaudits from the likes of the Wall Street Journal, Washington Post and conservative New York Times columnist David Brooks. And Romney is going to have trouble beating him on education. Yet Obama’s missteps are serious enough that explaining them--and how a Romney administration would correct them--would illuminate a picture of smarter, more humble domestic leadership.

Note: A version of this article first appeared in The Daily.

Related Tags:

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.


Commenting has been disabled on edweek.org effective Sept. 8. Please visit our FAQ section for more details. To get in touch with us visit our contact page, follow us on social media, or submit a Letter to the Editor.


Events

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Teaching Webinar
6 Key Trends in Teaching and Learning
As we enter the third school year affected by the pandemic—and a return to the classroom for many—we come better prepared, but questions remain. How will the last year impact teaching and learning this school
Content provided by Instructure
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Curriculum Webinar
How Data and Digital Curriculum Can Drive Personalized Instruction
As we return from an abnormal year, it’s an educator’s top priority to make sure the lessons learned under adversity positively impact students during the new school year. Digital curriculum has emerged from the pandemic
Content provided by Kiddom
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Equity & Diversity Webinar
Leadership for Racial Equity in Schools and Beyond
While the COVID-19 pandemic continues to reveal systemic racial disparities in educational opportunity, there are revelations to which we can and must respond. Through conscientious efforts, using an intentional focus on race, school leaders can
Content provided by Corwin

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Education More States Are Requiring Schools to Teach Native American History and Culture
Advocates say their efforts have gained some momentum with the nation’s reckoning over racial injustice since the killing of George Floyd.
3 min read
A dancer participates in an intertribal dance at Schemitzun on the Mashantucket Pequot Reservation in Mashantucket, Conn., Saturday, Aug. 28, 2021. Connecticut and a handful of other states have recently decided to mandate students be taught about Native American culture and history. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill)
Education Judge's Temporary Order Allows Iowa Schools to Mandate Masks
A federal judge ordered the state to immediately halt enforcement of a law that prevents school boards from ordering masks to be worn.
4 min read
Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds speaks to reporters following a news conference, Thursday, Aug. 19, 2021, in West Des Moines, Iowa. Reynolds lashed out at President Joe Biden Thursday after he ordered his education secretary to explore possible legal action against states that have blocked school mask mandates and other public health measures meant to protect students against COVID-19. Reynolds, a Republican, has signed a bill into law that prohibits school officials from requiring masks, raising concerns as delta variant virus cases climb across the state and schools resume classes soon. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)
Education Hurricane Ida Deals New Blow to Louisiana Schools Struggling to Reopen
The opening of the school year offered teachers a chance to fully assess the pandemic's effects, only to have students forced out again.
8 min read
Six-year-old Mary-Louise Lacobon sits on a fallen tree beside the remnants of her family's home destroyed by Hurricane Ida, in Dulac, La., on Sept. 4, 2021. Louisiana students, who were back in class after a year and a half of COVID-19 disruptions kept many of them at home, are now missing school again after Hurricane Ida. A quarter-million public school students statewide have no school to report to, though top educators are promising a return is, at most, weeks away, not months.
Six-year-old Mary-Louise Lacobon sits on a fallen tree beside the remnants of her family's home destroyed by Hurricane Ida, in Dulac, La., on Sept. 4, 2021.
John Locher/AP
Education Massachusetts National Guard to Help With Busing Students to School
250 guard personnel will be available to serve as drivers of school transport vans, as districts nationwide struggle to hire enough drivers.
1 min read
Massachusetts National Guard soldiers help with logistics in this Friday, April 17, 2020 file photo, at a food distribution site outside City Hall, in Chelsea, Mass. Mass. Gov. Charlie Baker on Monday, Sept. 13, 2021, activated the state's National Guard to help with busing students to school as districts across the country struggle to hire enough drivers.
Massachusetts National Guard soldiers help with logistics in this Friday, April 17, 2020 file photo, at a food distribution site outside City Hall, in Chelsea, Mass.
Michael Dwyer/AP