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Round 2: Obama, Romney Advisers Clash at AEI Policy Debate

By Alyson Klein — October 16, 2012 3 min read
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Even if neither President Barack Obama or GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney says a word about K-12 education tonight, education voters (okay, policy wonks) have plenty to chew on—first, from Monday night’s debate at Teachers College, Columbia University, then from another campaign-adviser debate in Washington today, at the American Enterprise Institute. Today’s AEI event featured Jon Schnur, the executive chairman of America Achieves, for the Obama campaign, and for Team Romney this time around Martin West, a Harvard professor.

The contrasts started right out of the gate, with West kicking things off by saying that there’s a lot of potential for “genuine cooperation” between the two parties on education. Schnur didn’t dispute that, but he made it clear that he thinks that Obama and Romney offer “dramatically different” visions when it comes to K-12 policy.

Here are some highlights:

•On the Elementary and Secondary Education Act waivers: West said the waivers granted by the Obama administration are a “poor substitute for a real reauthorization” and just generally a bad way to go about making federal policy, but he stopped short of saying Romney would absolutely, definitely dismantle them. Also notable: West trashed the waivers for “club[bing] states” into agreeing with the U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s conditions, but not for watering down standards for minority kids, something another Romney adviser, Phil Handy, hit hard at Monday night’s debate.

For his part, Schnur took the opportunity to chide the Romney folks on Handy’s contention, in the Teachers College debate, that a Romney administration would move back toward pre-waiver No Child Left Behind mode if reauthorization doesn’t happen quickly. He added that states “desperately want to get smart, targeted relief from NCLB.”

Also Schnur said the Obama administration is still committed to reauthorizing the law and that it might even happen in the first year or so of a potential second Obama term. (“Really?” says everyone who has been watching the dysfunction in Congress.)

•On funding: Rick Hess, of Rick Hess Straight Up Fame, who moderated the AEI debate asked, West point-blank whether voters should believe Romney when he says he won’t cut education funding.

West, said, yes, absolutely, Romney was telling the truth. But he also said that Romney wasn’t making a “program-by-program commitment” on spending levels. Instead, Romney was saying that “education will be protected as we make efforts to address the nation’s fiscal challenges.” It sounded like West thought some programs could get cut, like state grants for teacher quality, which he contends basically go to class-size reduction.

(So I’m still confused. Does that mean that Romney would keep level funding for Title I grants for disadvantaged children and special education level, but cut other federal education programs? What exactly is he promising to do or not do?)

•On the Common Core State Standards: West talked about how Romney likes the overall effort, which is now in 46 states and the District of Columbia, but thinks it should be “opt-in.” He said that the Obama administration is taking credit for the program and essentially “politicizing” it, which is pretty much the worst thing that can happen to the standards. Read more about Romney’s position on the Common Core here and here.

And Hess pointed out that there’s a lot of love for common core in the Democratic Party platform. Schnur said the Obama administration may have been encouraging states to adopt the standards, but hasn’t forced anyone to join up. What do you think? Comments section is open.

•On competitive funding: West had a slightly different take on Romney’s ideas when it comes to competitive grants than Handy did Monday night. At the Teachers College debate, Handy seemed to imply that a Romney administration wouldn’t want to spend money on something like Race to the Top. But West said the GOP nominee thinks competitive grants are a good idea, although he thinks the Teacher Incentive Fund, which offers grants to districts to improve pay-for-performance programs, has worked a lot better than Race to the Top.

Also, West said the Romney folks are big fans of the Investing in Innovation grant program, which Republicans on Capitol Hill have actually tried to get rid of multiple times.

Will Obama and Romney get as specific as their surrogates on these issues? Probably not, but we’ll see for sure tonight.