Are there great differences between the presidential candidates on education? What would a Romney presidency mean? A second Obama term?
Unfortunately (from my point of view), education has not been front-and-center in the campaign. Perhaps the low point came in the second debate when both men endorsed education as an antidote to the proliferation of assault weapons. Talk about bizarre!
Neither man was asked about No Child Left Behind, easily the most intrusive federal education effort in our history. They weren’t asked about the seemingly inexorable move toward national education standards; the growing body of evidence about the importance of early education; or the coming teacher shortage, to mention just a few of the pressing issues Americans might have been interested in hearing about.
In the second debate, the President recited how he’d changed the rules on student loans, taking bankers out of the equation and thus saving borrowers millions of dollars. The number of students receiving Pell Grants has grown, from about 7 million to 11 million, another point in his favor. Governor Romney boasted that Massachusetts ranked No. 1 in the nation on his watch. (I wrote a little about that in May.)
The night before the second debate, Columbia’s Teachers College hosted a debate between the candidates’ education advisors. There, a genuine difference emerged: one candidate would sharply restrict the federal role to data-gathering and promoting variety and choice for parents, while the other candidate apparently believes that the federal government should do what’s necessary, with no apparent limit to federal authority.
Both positions are a little scary, frankly.
Speaking for President Obama was Jon Schnur, a longtime political operative working in the education sphere. Governor Romney was represented by Phil Handy, co-chair of the candidate’s higher education advisory committee who has held top education positions in Florida and the U. S. Department of Education’s research wing.
Mr. Schnur praised the Administration’s “Race to the Top” campaign for its impact on school reform. He touted the expansion of the “RttT” concept to include school districts and providers of early childhood education.
He noted that the Common Core was not federal but was instead a voluntary partnership among states. Washington was ‘seeding’ the effort, which he said was the proper federal role. And he praised the Administration for its pragmatic response to gridlock and the failure to amend the widely-discredited No Child Left Behind Act. The Administration, he reminded us, has granted waivers to 35 states, with more in the offing. That was genuine leadership, he suggested.
In response, Mr. Handy pointed out that Washington was still making the rules, because only states that jumped through Washington’s hoops got waivers. That, he said, was the issue: who knows best?
We learned from Mr. Handy that Governor Romney favors a return to an amended No Child Left Behind, largely on the philosophical grounds that states know better. He also would put bankers back into the student loan equation, again for a philosophical reason: competition produces better results.
Mr. Handy did say that a Romney administration would honor the long-standing commitment to underprivileged children and those with special needs, but he rejected out of hand the Obama Administration’s efforts to circumvent No Child Left Behind by issuing waivers. He warned that the ‘waived’ states would begin playing fast and loose with the rules, citing announcements from several states (including his own state of Florida) that they were establishing separate standards for different groups of students (IE, one passing grade for whites, another for blacks).
“We will nullify those (waivers) on the first day in office,” he told me after the debate.
In sum, the choice seems clear. A second Obama term would continue the expansion of the federal role in education, but Romney Administration would back off.
While I believe the former, I am skeptical of the latter. I expect that the winner, whoever it is, will continue to expand the federal role in public education. After all, George W. Bush arrived in Washington as a “states’ rights” guy, and look what he did (albeit with Democratic help). Something in the air down there must make men and women think that they know best. Or maybe that’s what happens to people when they suddenly have power.
The most heartening development in public education that I have seen in 38 years on the job has been what’s happened in New Orleans since Katrina and the flooding. A key to that success has been the willingness to cede power to others, to acknowledge that what they’ve been doing hasn’t worked.
We’re finishing our film, which we are calling “Rebirth: New Orleans” now. I believe you will want to watch it, and I certainly hope that our next President, whoever it may be, will pay attention.