Debating education: What did we learn last night?

Last minute stage setup for the first Presidential Debate between President Barack Obama and Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney at the University of Denver take place as seen in a television camera monitor Wednesday, Oct. 3, 2012, in Denver. (AP Photo/J. David Ake)

Well, we learned that on many of the issues that inflame dialogue on this blog, candidates Obama and Romney pretty much agree. They both support charter schools. They both want  to recast teacher preparation. They both advocate more “accountability,” which seems to translate into evaluations driven at least in part by student performance data.

Governor Romney cited his record as governor of Massachusetts – and his state’s standing as the nationwide leader of the pack. But, as Rick Hess points out,

Romney’s education record as Massachusetts governor from 2003 to 2007 looks a lot like President Obama’s. Romney inherited a strong reform tradition — built around standards, testing, and accountability. He maintained and strengthened this commitment by adding a science test to the state’s accountability system and supporting high school exit exams. He also pushed a controversial plan to mandate parenting classes for parents in low-performing districts seeking to enroll their kids in kindergarten.

In terms of school choice, Romney vetoed a bill to place a moratorium on opening new charter schools, and the number of charter schools increased modestly, from 46 to 59. He unsuccessfully championed merit pay for the top third of performers and for math and science teachers, offering bonuses of up to $5,000. He pushed for addressing low-performing schools with strategies that are quite similar to those favored by the Obama administration, including making it easier to replace principals and teachers in such schools or turning them into charters.

Okay, to repeat the question Jim Lehrer kept trying to ask, where’s the difference between the Romney and Obama visions? Where’s the clash?

A few quick answers, again from Hess.

First, Governor Romney remains skeptical of top-down directives from Washington: a message that probably resonated with Utah viewers.

In Washington today, the big conservative-liberal divide on school reform is less about what to do and more about the appropriate federal role. Conservatives argue that the feds can make states and districts do things like turnarounds and teacher evaluations, but they can’t make them do them well. As Harvard professor and chief Romney education adviser Marty West says, “[Romney] believes the federal government is poorly positioned to specify what needs to be done at the local level.”

So, a Romney administration is less likely to differ from the Obama administration on what good policy looks like and more likely to differ on the federal role in pushing those policies.

While Governor Romney didn’t talk as much about spending cuts as I, at least, expected,

giving the VP nod to Paul Ryan sent a strong signal, as Ryan’s much-discussed Roadmap for America’s Future would cut $5.3 trillion over the next decade (and would reduce spending on education, training, employment, and social services by 33% in that span).

On the other hand, as Hess also notes, promises to “invest” lots more money in education are going to run into fiscal roadblocks whichever candidate wins. President Obama’s proposal to use federal money to hire more math and science teachers, for example, hasn’t garnered a whole lot of support even within his own party.

School choice remains the biggest contrast between the candidates, and Governor Romney offered up a more robust defense of choice than I’d anticipated.

. . . there are two distinct places where a President Romney would break with the Obama administration. The first is Romney’s explicit support for school vouchers. Romney has pledged to expand the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, a voucher program for low-income students in the District of Columbia.

Second, Romney would be more aggressive than his predecessors when it comes to pushing states to expand choice options. Romney wants to eliminate caps on charter and virtual schools and allocate more funds to increase the number of charter schools.

For me, the biggest and best surprise of last night’s debate was education reform’s relative prominence. Conventional wisdom holds that education isn’t a big ticket issue with voters. Here’s hoping – and here’s evidence – that conventional wisdom may be wrong.

One comment

  1. Carolyn Sharette

    One of the main reasons I support vouchers is because in doing the financial analysis of education, it seems clear to me that we will not be able to sustain the levels of funding that people have come to expect. If we do become responsible, and stop deficit spending, there will have to be cuts in federal and state programs, like education. When that happens, we will need to have a very competitive education market, with many options for parents, to keep costs down.

    It is unwise to fight hard to keep education as a government-run program. The outcomes are not what we need (too many failing students and schools) and the costs keep rising. Economics tell us that privatizing education will result in lower costs and higher outcomes. We are moving into a time in our country’s history when we simply cannot sustain the high costs of government education and all the red tape that goes along with it.

    Additionally, the great energy and expertise of many of our nations’ parents is left unused in the government system. For whatever reason, parents are disengaged from government schools, (I have some pretty clear ideas on why, having been a public school parent for the past 20+ years) and we need them fully engaged. The success of charter schools, however modest you may believe it is, has demonstrated that parents are ready, willing and able to engage in their children’s education, and they are stepping up and doing amazing things to provide their children with a high quality education. The government schools model complains of inadequate parental participation, and they are right – parents are often not meaningfully engaged, and students are much less likely to succeed if parents are not engaged.

    If we had a more dynamic private school market, parents would be more engaged (just choosing their child’s school is a BIG step toward engagement) and I believe we would see amazing things happening.

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