Education Aid Emerging as Campaign Issue

By Alyson Klein — August 20, 2012 9 min read
Presidential candidate Mitt Romney campaigns with Rep. Paul Ryan in Waukesha, Wis. The choice of Mr. Ryan for the GOP ticket has elevated education spending as an issue.
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U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan’s selection as the Republican vice-presidential candidate could spark a national debate about the future of education spending, an issue that’s gotten short shrift in the presidential campaign so far.

As the two national party conventions approach, Democrats are already charging that the Wisconsin lawmaker’s controversial budget blueprint, which presumptive GOP nominee Mitt Romney has largely endorsed, would scale back college financial aid and slash other funding for education.

Rep. Ryan’s plan seeks to put the nation on a firmer financial footing in part by dramatically curbing domestic spending. But it also sets up a clear contrast with the record of President Barack Obama, who has pumped unprecedented sums of money into education programs. That record is due in large part to the big, but time-limited, infusion of money through the 2009 economic-stimulus package.

“Having Ryan on the ticket really forces a discussion: Do we think the federal government has a role in propping up education spending in the face of cutbacks, or do we think that’s better placed in the hands of district and state officials?” said Arnold Shober, who has studied politics and education as an assistant professor of government at Lawrence University in Appleton, Wis.

Mr. Romney’s choice of Rep. Ryan, the chairman of the House Budget Committee, for the No. 2 spot on the ticket means that the seven-term congressman’s fiscal plan is likely to get a lot of airtime at both national conventions. The Republicans will gather next week in Tampa, Fla., to nominate Mr. Romney, a former governor of Massachusetts, for president. The Democrats will convene in Charlotte, N.C., the first week in September to again select Mr. Obama as their standard-bearer.

‘Disastrous’ Impact?

Contrasts in Education Spending

Presumptive GOP nominee Mitt Romney’s decision to tap U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin as his running mate is likely to put a spotlight on education spending. Mr. Ryan is the author of a controversial budget blueprint that seeks to rein in domestic discretionary spending, the category that includes K-12 schools.

The Ryan budget offers a sharp contrast with President Barack Obama’s budget, also unveiled this year.

The Ryan long-term budget would:
• Cut domestic discretionary spending by 22 percent in fiscal year 2014, according to an analysis by the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities;
• Change the eligibility rules for Pell Grants; and
• Potentially cut the $14.5 billion Title I program for disadvantaged students by $2.7 billion, according to an analysis by the U.S. Department of Education that Republicans dispute.

The Obama budget for fiscal 2013 would:
• Slightly boost education spending overall, including a continuation of competitive grants such as the Race to the Top; and
• Provide flat funding for key formula programs, such as Title I grants for districts and state grants for special education.

SOURCES: Center for Budget and Policy Priorities; New America Foundation; Education Week

Mr. Ryan’s budget plan would significantly slash domestic discretionary spending, a broad category that includes education, health, environmental, public-safety, and other programs. Taken as a whole, those programs could be cut by as much as 22 percent in fiscal year 2014, according to an analysis by the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, a Washington organization that analyzes the effect of government policies on low- and moderate-income Americans.

The House of Representatives initially passed the plan in April 2011 by a vote of 235-193, with no Democratic support. A second vote this year on a similar proposal yielded similar results. The plan aims to cut spending by more than $5 trillion over the next decade, relative to the Obama administration’s budget blueprint, while reducing tax rates, according to an analysis by the House Budget Committee.

It also seeks big changes to rein in spending on entitlement programs, including Medicare, while at the same time seeking to protect the Pentagon from big cuts, the Budget Committee’s analysis says.

Under the Ryan plan, the federal budget would show a slight surplus in 2040, according to an analysis by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office.

The plan, which failed to pass last year in the Democratic-controlled Senate, where it received support from most Republicans, calls for getting rid of “duplicative” K-12 programs, but doesn’t specify which ones would be scrapped.

It’s hard to say just how key education programs—such as Title I grants to help school districts cover the cost of educating disadvantaged students—would fare under the Ryan plan, since the broad budget blueprint doesn’t include a program-by-program breakdown of education spending.

But that hasn’t stopped the Obama administration from trying to attach eye-popping numbers to the potential cuts.

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said in testimony before a House panel in March that the Ryan budget would have a “disastrous” impact on K-12 funding. For instance, he said, the Title I program, which is now funded at $14.5 billion, could be cut by as much as $2.7 billion.

And just hours after Mr. Romney’s Aug. 11 announcement of his choice of a running mate, the Obama campaign released a statement saying that Rep. Ryan’s budget would make “deep cuts” in education from early childhood to college.

Mr. Obama, for his part, signed into law the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act the month after he took office in 2009. The stimulus measure provided about $100 billion for education programs, the largest boost in history. In the summer of 2010, with Democrats still in control of both houses of Congress, the administration pushed for—and got—an additional $10 billion to help stave off education job losses.

President Barack Obama is greeted by a supporter while campaigning in Waterloo, Iowa last week. Despite securing more than $100 billion in additional federal funding for K-12 education during his term and creating the Race to the Top program, Mr. Obama does not focus much on his K-12 record while on the campaign trail.

Earlier this year, the president also asked Congress for $55 billion to avert teacher layoffs and fix up schools, but the proposal failed to garner sufficient support.

Martin West, who serves as one of the Romney campaign’s co-chairs on K-12 issues, thinks that the increased education spending could actually be an electoral liability for President Obama.

“The vast majority of that funding has gone into maintaining the status quo,” said Mr. West, an assistant professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

But Patrick Riccards, who has worked on a number of Democratic congressional campaigns, said Rep. Ryan’s selection as Mr. Romney’s running mate will give educators—who have clashed with Mr. Obama on such issues as basing teacher evaluations in part on student test scores—a reason to turn out for the president in the fall.

“I think there’s no question that this is going to help him with the part of his base that deals with education,” said Mr. Riccards, who is now the executive director of the Connecticut Coalition for Achievement Now, an advocacy group based in New Haven.

Even though Rep. Ryan’s budget plan doesn’t include specific levels for education spending, Mr. Riccards expects that Obama supporters will contend that Mr. Romney and Mr. Ryan want to get rid of the U.S. Department of Education.

“Campaigns are not doctoral theses. You don’t have to have incontrovertible proof. …. It’s not that large of a rhetorical leap, if you look at the cuts he’s proposing, that he wants to put 400 Maryland Avenue out of business,” he said, referring to the address of the U.S. Education Department.

Mr. Romney has said that he’d like to significantly shrink the Education Department, but has stopped short of calling for eliminating it.

Pell Grant Debate

Already, the Ryan pick has put education more into focus in the race—and into campaign ads.

Soon after the selection, the Obama campaign released a television ad highlighting the cuts to higher education spending that are included in the Ryan budget plan.

Mr. Ryan’s proposal would make big changes to the Pell Grant program, which would ultimately result in fewer students’ meeting the eligibility requirements of those grants for low-income college students. It would also eliminate interest-free benefits on subsidized Stafford Loans, according to an analysis by the New America Foundation, a think tank in Washington.

The Obama campaign ad doesn’t go into all those specifics. But it accuses Mr. Romney of seeking to “cut college aid for nearly 10 million students.” And it points to the administration’s record on higher education, including the successful push to eliminate the Federal Family Education Loan Program, which relied on subsidized private lenders to make loans to students.

Mr. Shober, the Lawrence University professor, expects to hear more attacks along those lines from the Obama campaign.

“Ryan is perhaps a vulnerability on that score,” Mr. Shober said. The congressman’s budget, he said, “will not garner the good will of 20-year-olds who are deeply in debt.”

But Jason Delisle, the director of the New America Foundation’s education budget project, gave Mr. Ryan high marks for acknowledging long-term sustainability problems with the Pell Grant program, even if his solutions aren’t as clear as they could be. The Pell Grant program has grown quickly in recent years, in part because Congress increased the size of the maximum grant when Democrats took control of Congress in 2007, and in part because there has been much higher demand for the grants during the economic slowdown.

The Economy Dominates

Mr. Delisle said the vague nature of a budget blueprint will make it harder for Democrats to go after Rep. Ryan on specific spending cuts.

“All they can say is ‘You’re going to put downward pressure on the future funding for these programs,’ ” said Mr. Delisle, who worked as an aide to then-Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H., when he served as the chairman of the Senate Budget Committee. “It doesn’t make for a great sound bite.”

No matter who wins in November, fiscal issues are likely to take center stage later this year. Shortly after the elections, Congress is expected to return to Washington to tackle significant long-term deficit issues in a lame-duck session, including whether to avert across-the-board trigger cuts known as “sequestration.” (Advocates Raise Concerns on Looming ‘Sequester’ Cuts, Aug. 8, 2012.)

The cuts, which were put in place last summer as part of a deal to raise the federal debt ceiling, could mean a 7.8 percent reduction to a host of military and domestic programs, including education.

President Obama’s budget proposal for fiscal year 2013 seeks to avert some of the cuts through a mix of other spending reductions and tax increases.

Mr. Romney has said that if he’s elected, he’d like Congress to come up with a short-term deal on the cuts so that he could help lawmakers craft a long-term plan for the nation’s fiscal future after taking office in January. By making Rep. Ryan his vice-presidential choice, Mr. Romney appears to be sending a major signal about where he’d like those budget talks to go.

President Obama’s first term has seen some major developments on K-12 policy—including the Obama administration’s Race to the Top program, which encouraged states to embrace controversial new teacher-evaluation systems, charter schools, higher academic standards, and dramatic interventions for the lowest-performing schools. But there’s been little discussion of his education record on the campaign trail.

“I think with the economy the way it is, that will continue to be the primary issue,” said Craig Jerald, an independent consultant who served as the policy director of Ed in ‘08, a Washington-based nonpartisan campaign to make education a top issue in the 2008 presidential race. “I would be shocked if it got much play at either of the conventions. …. The candidates need to check the box, but they’re not really going to give it much weight.”

Mr. Romney unveiled his own education proposal earlier this summer, including a plan to allow parents of special education and disadvantaged students to take their federal aid to the school or program of their choice, including a private or religious school. But he’s been virtually silent on K-12 policy since then.

Policy Record

Rep. Ryan doesn’t have a long record on education policy, but his recent stances are aligned with those of most other House Republicans. As a junior member of Congress in 2001, he voted for the No Child Left Behind Act, which passed with overwhelming bipartisan support.

But since then, he’s changed his mind about the federal accountability system at the heart of the law. He has become a co-sponsor of the A-Plus Act, which would allow states to opt out of many of the mandates of the NCLB law, as long as they agreed to show student-achievement gains.

David Parr, the president of the Janesville Education Association, a 735-member union in Rep. Ryan’s Wisconsin hometown and congressional district, described the congressman as “very polite and approachable.” Rep. Ryan has helped students from Janesville, including Mr. Parr’s own children, with public policy research projects, he said.

But Mr. Parr, a teacher at Janesville Virtual Academy, an online public school, is not a fan of Rep. Ryan’s budget proposal.

“He’s not anti-education,” Mr. Parr said. “He’s just anti-paying-for-it.”

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A version of this article appeared in the August 22, 2012 edition of Education Week as Romney’s VP Pick Puts K-12 Spending on Campaign Stage


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