Obama, Romney and Education


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.

Which one would be better for our students and our schools between now and 2016?

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.

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7 thoughts on “Obama, Romney and Education

  1. Gov. Romney did mention that we should give far more children two parents. It was one of the few new things I heard in the debate; a recognition of the 72% of black babies born to unwed mothers and the much higher chances of escaping poverty and graduating for those born to a married couple.

    Great report here, John.

    Do they really have advanced plans for different cut scores for blacks and whites? Where?


  2. Thanks for the report on the debate about which I hadn’t heard, and I agree not enough real discussion. Thought the turmoil in Wisconsin might have lead to more specific discussion. Tx.


  3. I am not sure that I quite understand Mr. Merrow’s following comment regarding an expansion of the federal role in public education, “After all, George W. Bush arrived in Washington as a ‘states’ rights’ guy, and look what he did” (para. 15). There seems to be public opinion [often incorrect] that No Child Left Behind (NCLB) was set to increase Federal involvement in education. In fact, According to the U.S. Department of Education (2002) Title I and Title VI of the bill stated that the focus was on,

     (1) stronger accountability for results; (2) greater flexibility for states, school districts, and schools in the use of federal funds; (3) more choices for parents of children from disadvantaged backgrounds; and (4) an emphasis on teaching methods that have been demonstrated to work” (p. 9)

     It was the responsibility of each State upon award of funding to ensure that local educational agencies (LEA) adhered to the four aforementioned elements of the bill.  State Departments of Education began to place a greater emphasis on high stake assessments, as results on these assessments were to be indicative of an increase in student achievement.  The rules were clear – you [the LEA] can do what ever you want as long as you can prove that it is working.  Trouble began when we realized that the traditional approach to teaching reading [meaning the over-use of constructivist methods that resurged circa 1991 at the K-5 level] weren’t working.  Rather than abandon these methods completely – even after the release of information regarding research-based reading instruction from the National Reading Panel (2000) – educators began arguing that the assessments weren’t representative of student learning which then manifest into the current idea that suggests ~

    We can’t get every kid in the United States to read at an at-least proficient level by fourth grade so we better change something… but it can’t be how we teach or the programs we use because we have spent too much money on them over the past 50 years to admit that they don’t really work.

    The point being of course that we still really haven’t adhered to the fourth element of the initial bill.  More importantly, the Federal Government provided funding to LEA with the intent that the LEA would adhere to [at least] research-based methods to increase student achievement ~ Unfortunately, contrary to public opinion, when left to their own devices, most LEAs failed to produce.

    U.S. Department of Education (2002).  Lead & manage my school: No child left behind, a desk top reference.Retrieved from http://www.ed.gov/admins/lead/account/nclbreference/page.html


    • NCLB enlarged the net so that any school district receiving any federal funds had to meet the federal law’s rules, for all children. Prior to that, the federal responsibility was largely for two groups of children: the disadvantaged and those with special needs.

      Whether that’s good or bad is not the issue, just that it’s a new game.


    • Ok, it’s clear New Orleans is reaching almost all of its children with the new charter system, but children who learn in a non-traditional way are being left out. Why does the Superintendent say that Charters who do this will lose their license? It’s clear that it’s happening and it shouldn’t be hard to find out who rejected these kids. If New Orleans has the unusual ability to rebuild an entire system and they chose Charter Schools, which may be the only way I can see supporting them (if they are used exclusively and not randomly), it should be easy to make them incorporate special needs children. The best public schools do that and no one suffers. I feel the your report didn’t delve into this question. Your readers and watchers also need to understand the true economics of Charter Schools. Will all of the schools in New Orleans be able to operate on just public funds alone or will they supplement with private money and if so, doesn’t this fuel the debate about whether they are truly public school?


  4. Thanks for the additional information. I was looking for a more elaborate description of an “education plan” from the candidates but hadn’t heard of anything. But I also felt that “Race to the Top” was not a strong message from the federal government on its education position. That it was kind of like, essentially no message. Or the message is that competition is the best way to drive reform, which doesn’t begin to resolve any issues around inequity in education. I wish I could expect more from this next term regarding education reform, but it sounds like I’m not going to see much.


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