Debates Push Fate of Education Policies to Fore

By Michele McNeil — October 22, 2012 7 min read
Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama talk over each other at last week’s debate at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y. The candidates sparred on education and other issues. In a pair of separate matchups last week, campaign advisers squared off on a range of education policy issues.

As the two presidential campaigns continue to sharpen how they would approach the federal role in education if victorious, advisers to President Barack Obama and Republican nominee Mitt Romney have made it clear that the fate of waivers under the No Child Left Behind Act may be decided by the November election.

During two debates last week featuring education advisers to the rival campaigns, surrogates for Mr. Romney emphasized that the waiver flexibility granted by the U.S. Department of Education to 34 states and the District of Columbia would—at a minimum—be reviewed and could even be revoked if their candidate wins.

The waivers are “not about flexibility. They’re very prescriptive,” F. Philip Handy, a former chairman of the Florida state board of education and an education adviser to Mr. Romney, said at an Oct. 15 debate at Teachers College, Columbia University.

Mr. Handy said Mr. Romney plans to review all executive orders, and waivers, though not technically executive orders, would also be reviewed. He said a Romney administration would push for reauthorizing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, whose current version is the decade-old NCLB law, and if that didn’t happen, would try to return to the law as written.

The waivers, offered by the Obama administration last year to give states flexibility until Congress rewrites the law, are the latest example of big differences that have emerged between the campaigns on federal education policy—differences that were also aired during a second debate between the presidential candidates themselves last week.

The campaigns disagree most over how involved the federal government should be in pushing the Common Core State Standards and how education should be funded in the federal budget.

But as waivers continue to be awarded to states, the issue of flexibility under the NCLB law has the potential for the biggest ramifications. A majority of states are now operating under new accountability systems that they crafted as an alternative to the law’s requirements and are no longer bound by its goal of getting 100 percent of students to grade-level proficiency in reading and mathematics by the end of the 2013-14 school year.

In return for flexibility, states had to agree to adopt college- and career-readiness standards, differentiated interventions for struggling schools, and teacher- and principal-evaluation systems based in part on student performance.

To revoke the waivers would be to return to the “worst parts” of the law, Jon Schnur, an education adviser to Mr. Obama’s campaign and the founder of the New York City-based nonprofit group America Achieves, said at the Oct. 15 advisers’ debate, which was co-hosted by Teachers College and Education Week.

Funding Feud

One of the biggest gulfs between the two campaigns may be over federal budget policy.

When Mr. Romney picked as his running mate U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, the House Budget Committee chairman, Democrats said the choice could signal support for big cuts in education spending, since Mr. Ryan’s own high-profile budget plan seeks to dramatically rein in domestic spending to curb federal deficits.

But in a surprise move at the first presidential debate, held in Denver on Oct. 3, Mr. Romney committed to not cutting education. And during last week’s debates between education advisers, his representatives reiterated that pledge.

Taking the Election to School

Education advisers to President Barack Obama and GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney debated issues from school accountability to education funding at Teachers College, Columbia University. View the archived video of the Oct. 15 event, co-hosted by Education Week.

At Teachers College, Mr. Handy said the crux of the federal funding problem is entitlement programs such as Social Security. “You can easily hold public education harmless without impacting the creation of more deficits,” he said.

But Mr. Romney won’t spend more on education, either, Mr. Handy said, specifically ruling out more money for areas such as common assessments to match the common standards or for early education. “You just can’t keep adding to the deficit,” Mr. Handy said.

Mr. Handy did say, however, that for Head Start—an early education program administered through the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services—there would be “different criteria and different elements of success.” He criticized Head Start as being “much more of a social experience and not preparing children for school.”

A day later, at an Oct. 16 debate at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, Martin West, a Harvard University professor and Romney campaign education adviser, said that the nominee wasn’t making a “program-by-program commitment” on spending levels at the Oct. 3 presidential debate. Instead, Mr. Romney was saying that “education will be protected as we make efforts to address the nation’s fiscal challenges,” said Mr. West.

The pair of adviser debates also provided the Romney campaign with an opportunity to explain in more detail the former Massachusetts governor’s plan to send special education aid and Title I money for disadvantaged students to parents as vouchers so they could use them at the schools of their choice.

Mr. Handy acknowledged that, since the federal government pays only an average of about 10 percent of a child’s K-12 education, Mr. Romney’s voucher plan would have to start small. States would be encouraged to match those dollars, and seven or eight would probably do so right away, he said.

“The federal government’s role should be to get this choice started,” Mr. Handy said at the Teachers College debate.

However, Mr. Schnur, the Obama campaign’s representative, retorted: “It’s an interesting idea that doesn’t seem workable.”

Mr. Schnur, who represented the president in both adviser debates, used the forums to argue that voters have what he portrayed as a stark choice between the two candidates: Mr. Obama sees education as an “investment,” while Mr. Romney sees it as an “expense” that can be cut.

“The view of budget policy that the governor has, ... I do think it represents a significant contrast,” said Mr. Schnur. “The question is what you campaign for as president. Will you focus on education if elected? The president will.”

During the second presidential debate, held Oct. 16 in a town-hall format at Hofstra University, Mr. Obama cited his administration’s success in removing banks as the federal college-loan middlemen, which he said has freed up money for the Pell Grant program for low-income students.

During the same debate, Mr. Romney also ramped up his message of support for keeping college affordable, saying he would keep the Pell Grant program “growing.” That promise highlights a position he has made before to a much smaller audience and contrasts with the budget Rep. Ryan proposed, which would tighten Pell Grant eligibility—focusing it on the neediest students—in light of a roughly $7 billion Pell shortfall.

In September, Mr. Romney said he wanted the grants to grow at the rate of inflation.

Split on Common Core

President Obama and Mr. Romney are also split on the federal role in helping states adopt a common set of academic standards.

The common core began as a state-driven effort, spearheaded by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers. The Obama administration has encouraged states to adopt the common core by requiring college- and career-readiness standards in states’ NCLB waiver applications and in their applications in the Race to the Top education redesign competition. (Though neither required the adoption of the common core specifically, that was the easiest way for states to prove their standards are designed to make students ready for college and careers.)

In addition, the administration contributed $360 million to an effort to develop common tests linked to the new standards.

Last month, Mr. Romney made clear he would not steer federal funds to the common-core effort. In the Oct. 16 AEI debate, Mr. West said that while the former governor likes the overall common-core effort, which is now in 46 states and the District of Columbia, he thinks it should be “opt-in.” Mr. West said the Obama administration is taking credit for the program and essentially “politicizing” it.

Mr. Schnur countered that the administration may have been encouraging states to adopt the standards, but that it hasn’t forced any to join the effort.

Despite such differences, one area of agreement related to education has emerged between the two candidates: support for giving a path to citizenship to young people who have been living in the United States without legal documentation, as the dream Act proposal does.

During the presidential debate last week at Hofstra, Mr. Romney did not endorse the dream Act directly but did say that young people “should have a pathway to becoming a permanent resident.” Those remarks differed from his position during the GOP primary season earlier this year. At that time, Mr. Romney said that although he supported a path to citizenship for members of the military, he would veto the proposed broader legislation.

Mr. Obama, at the same debate, reiterated his long-standing support for the dream Act.

Staff Writer Alyson Klein contributed to this article.
A version of this article appeared in the October 24, 2012 edition of Education Week as Debates Push Fate of NCLB Waivers to Fore

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