Presidential Nominees Serve Up Sharp Differences on Education

By Alyson Klein — September 10, 2012 8 min read
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During the recently concluded presidential nominating conventions, President Barack Obama and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney offered stark choices on K-12 policy while downplaying areas of agreement between their two parties—and the tensions within each party on education issues.

In Charlotte, N.C., last week, the Democrats put a relentless focus on Mr. Obama’s record of making education a federal funding priority. They cited the billions of dollars his administration steered into saving teachers’ jobs and broadening college access.

And convention speakers, including U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, highlighted the president’s role in encouraging states to adopt rigorous standards and warned that Republicans would slash education spending.

President Barack Obama speaks at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C., on Sept. 6.

In Tampa, Fla., the week before, Republicans picked Mr. Romney as their standard-bearer. They pointed to Mr. Obama’s lack of support for private school choice and hammered teachers’ unions as an obstruction to the GOP vision for education reform.

But the focus on those politically charged issues, which got most of the education airtime at each party’s convention, belies the areas of agreement between many Democrats and Republicans on policies such as charter schools and performance pay for teachers.

And it ignores intraparty fissures that were evident behind the scenes in both cities on such issues as common academic standards, a topic that has split the GOP, and teacher evaluation, which has divided Democrats.

In Charlotte, for example, Democrats gave little prime-time attention to the politically prickly policies at the heart of President Obama’s agenda, including aggressive school turnarounds, teacher evaluations based in part on student test scores, and charter school expansion.

Instead, in his Sept. 6 acceptance speech, Mr. Obama declared: “Now we have a choice—we can gut education, or we can decide that in the United States of America, no child should have her dreams deferred because of a crowded classroom or a crumbling school. No family should have to set aside a college-acceptance letter because they don’t have the money.”

In Tampa, the speakers who mentioned education tended to focus primarily on school choice and what they pitched as the pernicious influence of teachers’ unions, while side-stepping politically dicey questions such as whether there should even be a U.S. Department of Education—an agency long opposed by many in the party.

School choice was the only K-12 issue that made its way into Mr. Romney’s Aug. 30 acceptance speech.

“When it comes to the school your child should attend, every parent should have a choice, and every child should have a chance,” said Mr. Romney, whose positions include a voucher-like proposal involving federal special education aid and money for disadvantaged students.

Political Danger Zones

The focus by Democrats in Charlotte on school funding and college access—rather than on such contentious Obama administration policies as using student test scores as a factor in teacher evaluations—came as no surprise to Michelle A. Rhee, the former chancellor of the District of Columbia schools. She attended both conventions as the founder and chief executive officer of StudentsFirst, a Sacramento, Calif.-based advocacy organization.

President Barack Obama arrives at a campaign event at Strawbery Banke Museum in Portsmouth, N.H., on Sept. 7.

For Democrats, “the safer things during campaign season to talk about are Pell Grants, early childhood, that sort of stuff,” she said in an interview last week.

But Ms. Rhee, who is considered one of the pre-eminent voices in the self-styled education “reformer” wing of the Democratic Party, wasn’t disheartened by the dearth of talk about charters and teacher quality.

Mr. Obama “has raised those issues on the national stage” in the past, including in State of the Union addresses, she said."I don’t think anybody is confused on where the president and the [education] secretary stand,” Ms. Rhee said.

President Obama steered some $100 billion to education through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the economic-stimulus package passed in 2009. That legislation also created the administration’s signature K-12 initiative, the Race to the Top grant competition, which rewarded states for embracing certain education redesign principles, such as expanding charters, turning around low-performing schools, and raising standards. It gave states credit for adopting new educator-evaluation systems that take student achievement into account.

Mr. Romney, for his part, proposes allowing parents to take federal Title I money for disadvantaged children and aid for students in special education that now flows to districts to any school they choose, including a private school. And the former governor and business executive has sought to use transparency for student results as the main lever in school improvement—rather than requiring schools to set achievement goals, as the Obama administration has done.

But Mr. Romney has stopped short of calling for dismantling the federal Education Department, and he hasn’t spoken out against the Common Core State Standards, which are a thorn in the side of many conservatives.

‘Being a Leader’

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, Mr. Romney’s most visible surrogate on education—he made education the theme of his speech to the Tampa delegates—brushed off the notion that the Republican nominee, if elected, will be hampered on K-12 issues by the more conservative wing of the party.

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney and vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan are on stage with their wives Ann Romney and Janna Ryan at the end of the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Fla., on Aug. 30.

“I think he can just be president. That’s part of being a leader,” Mr. Bush said in an interview. “You’re never going to satisfy every person on every issue; you can earn people’s respect and support.”

Mr. Bush, who has praised Mr. Obama’s pick for education secretary, cited Mr. Romney’s support for school choice as the key difference between the two candidates when it comes to K-12. He said during a panel discussion on education in Tampa that there aren’t as many distinctions between the two candidates on school policy as there are on most other issues.

“We’re in this climate of negativity, and there may be more agreement here than people want to admit,” he said.

Mr. Bush even had kind words for the Race to the Top, which was only a bit player in Charlotte and isn’t mentioned in the Democrats’ official platform. The former Florida governor didn’t mention the program by name, but praised the Obama administration’s “incentives for nonreform-minded states.”

Highlighting Differences

But Jon Schnur, an education adviser to the Obama campaign, threw cold water on the idea that Mr. Romney and Mr. Obama would govern similarly on K-12 issues.

Dueling Policy Positions

As Democrats and Republicans gathered to nominate their presidential candidates, each party also adopted a platform of policy priorities. Among their education positions:


  • Declare they are committed to working with states and communities so they have flexibility and resources to improve elementary and secondary education.
  • Support college- and career-ready standards.

  • Embrace public school options for low-income youths, including magnet schools, charter schools, teacher-led schools, and career academies.
  • Believe in “carefully crafted evaluation systems that give struggling teachers a chance to succeed and protect due process if another teacher has to be put in the classroom.”
  • Call for raising standards for the programs that prepare teachers, recognizing and rewarding good teaching, and retaining good teachers.
  • Encourage colleges to keep costs down by reducing federal aid for those that do not.


  • Support school choice programs so students can attend private or out-of-district schools; back expansion of the D.C.
  • Opportunity Scholarship Program; support charter schools, open enrollment policies, virtual schools, home-schooling, and local innovations such as single-sex classes, full-day school hours, and year-round schools.

  • Push accountability on the part of administrators, parents, and teachers; back programs that support the development of character and financial literacy; support periodic testing in math, science, reading, history, and geography.
  • Affirm rigorous academic standards and “reject the crippling bigotry of low expectations.”
  • Support English immersion rather than bilingual education for students learning English.
  • Favor abstinence education.
  • Support legislation that changes the “highly qualified” teacher designation, created under the No Child Left Behind Act, so that teachers are not defined just by their degrees to the exclusion of results in the classroom.
  • Say the federal government “should not be in the business of originating student loans.” Private-sector student financing, however, is welcome.

SOURCES: Democratic National Platform, Republican National Platform

“They represent dramatically different visions and priorities,” Mr. Schnur said in an email. “When you look at Romney’s education and budget proposals, they just represent a dramatically smaller focus on education—with reduced access to college, reduced funding for our schools, and reduced accountability and reform to improve our schools.”

In fact, much of the education rhetoric on the Democratic convention floor was devoted to warnings of cuts to education programs if voters elect Mr. Romney and his running mate, U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin and the author of an austere budget blueprint.

The cuts in the Ryan budget, which have been highlighted in a number of Obama campaign commercials airing in swing states, were a big focus of Secretary Duncan’s convention speech.

“In order to cut taxes for millionaires and billionaires, Governor Romney will cut education for our children,” Mr. Duncan told the crowd. “That’s the difference in this election. They see education as an expense. President Obama sees it as an investment.”

But Republicans note that the Ryan budget proposal, which has been passed by the U.S. House of Representatives, isn’t specific on spending levels for individual K-12 programs. Instead, it calls for a 20 percent reduction in domestic discretionary spending, the broad category that includes education. That cut would likely put major pressure on federal spending for schools.

Still, the Romney team has sought to distance the GOP nominee from the proposal.

“The Ryan plan is not Romney’s plan,” Phil Handy, one of Mr. Romney’s education co-chairs, said in an interview. “We certainly didn’t specify anything like that in our plan.”

Mr. Ryan’s own speech to his party’s convention called for a major slimming-down of government spending. But the House Budget Committee chairman was silent on just how his plan would affect education.

And while he chastised the Obama administration for its economic policies, he didn’t single out the president’s record of steering significant aid to K-12 education.

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney shakes hands during a campaign rally on Sept. 7 in Orange City, Iowa.

Secretary Duncan, like other speakers in Charlotte, including former President Bill Clinton, also drew attention to President Obama’s record on higher education access, a clear nod to the pivotal role that college students and their parents could play in the Nov. 6 election. During his term, Mr. Obama has revamped the student-lending program so that all loans originate through the U.S. Treasury, instead of through subsidized private lenders. And the administration greatly expanded the Pell Grant program, which helps low-income students attend college.

By contrast, Rep. Ryan’s budget blueprint says that federal expansion of student aid may actually have an adverse impact on college costs, since it does nothing to encourage universities to keep tuition low. His budget seeks to curb the Pell Grant program and refocus the grants on the neediest students.

Rallying Their Bases

Both presidential nominees have had difficulty leveraging their positions on K-12 to rally their respective party bases.

Many teachers’ union members in Charlotte, for example, voiced disappointment in Mr. Obama’s support for tying teacher evaluations partly to student test scores. But they still were planning to provide him with get-out-the-vote muscle, partly because they think they’d be much worse off under a Romney administration.

“It’s a mixed bag,” Linda Myers, who recently retired from her work with the Michigan Education Association, an affiliate of the National Education Association, said of the Obama education record. “But he’s willing to listen [to unions]. With our options, he’s the best guy for the job.”

The party faithful in Tampa were also able to rally to Mr. Romney’s defense, even if they wished he’d take a bolder stance on K-12 issues.

South Carolina state Sen. Mike Fair would have liked to see Mr. Romney’s campaign propose the elimination of the federal department, and he would have liked the candidate to come out against the common-core standards. But, on balance, he thinks the Republican would be much better for the nation than Mr. Obama.

“Am I disappointed that [Mr. Romney] didn’t come out blasting against common core? No. We need jobs,” said Mr. Fair, an alternate delegate.

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Assistant Editor Sean Cavanagh and Staff Writers Nirvi Shah and Andrew Ujifusa contributed to this article.
A version of this article appeared in the September 12, 2012 edition of Education Week as Nominees Serve Up Stark Differences on Education


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