Obama and Romney Agree on Federal Role in Education, Advisers Say

Published October 17, 2012

Hours before the U.S. presidential candidates debated Tuesday, campaign representatives debated education policy, agreeing the federal government should not cut education spending but disagreeing on how to spend its annual $68 billion in appropriations.  

In the first presidential debate, Republican candidate and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney stated he had no plans to cut federal education spending despite devoting considerable campaign time to the $16 trillion federal debt and four years of $1 trillion budget deficits. Federal debt has now surpassed U.S. gross domestic product, the total goods and services its citizens produce in a year. The debt equals approximately $51,000 per U.S. citizen, including school children. In the presidential debate yesterday, Romney and President Obama reiterated their support for current federal programs, such as Pell Grant subsidies for college students.

Romney’s support for education spending levels means education will “be protected as we make efforts to address this nation’s fiscal challenges,” said Martin West, who represented the Romney campaign during the debate, held at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, DC. West is an assistant professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and executive editor of Education Next.

Jon Schnur, who represented Democrat Obama’s campaign, emphasized Obama’s record of “transformational change.” Schnur co-founded America Achieves and New Leaders for New Schools.

“[Obama] has shifted the federal role in many ways,” Schnur said, highlighting the administration’s waivers of No Child Left Behind, the largest federal education law, for 33 states, “doubled down” federal education spending, and significant changes to teacher evaluations and charter school laws states had to make to receive a federal Race to the Top grant.

Federal Role in Education
Though both agreed the federal government should play a significant role in education policy, they disagreed about what it is.

Romney believes the federal government should focus on three things, West said: Providing parents and taxpayers with information to make decisions, increasing parent choice in education, and ensuring federal activity “expands access and opportunity” rather than spikes costs. He said Romney supports creating a detailed system of school report cards modeled after Florida’s A-F school grades.

West critiqued the federal stimulus’s education funds for “preventing state officials from making the hard decisions they needed to make and to cut back.”

“I wouldn’t call averting layoffs of teachers a sugar rush,” Schnur responded. “Cuts can be necessary, but you never want enormous, immediate cuts.”

U.S. education spending has doubled in real dollars in the past 40 years. The national teacher-student ratio is 1 to 15. Forty years ago, it was 1 to 22.

Busting the School Monopoly
“[Obama has] established a principle of funding things based on performance,” Schnur said. West shot back that the president tried several times to eliminate or cap the DC vouchers program despite congressional evaluations showing voucher students had higher high school graduation rates and the program garnered high parent satisfaction.

“The president has been a big champion of parent choice in public education” but opposes vouchers because parents may use them to send children to private schools, Schnur returned. “The president will look carefully at the evidence on how a program impacts student achievement.”

Later, during a question about federal regulations targeting for-profit colleges, Schnur said he and President Obama support for-profit companies in some areas, mentioning curriculum and testing companies, though he objected to treating education like “an industry.”

West said a core federal responsibility is “trust-busting monopolies, and that’s what local schools have right now, a monopoly.”

Both discussed Romney’s proposal to let $25 billion for poor and disabled students follow the students to whichever school they attend. Schnur said the proposal would “dial up” federal intervention in schools.

“Federal funding should be used to empower students, not sluggish bureaucracies,” West responded. “It would not immediately generate large vouchers for all the poor kids in America. It would also not force vouchers on anyone… These federal programs have a disappointing track record for our most needy students.”

Federal Conditions on Taxpayer Dollars
Despite talk of reducing bureaucracy and regulations, West supported the Obama administration’s approach of using federal dollars to get states to comply with administration preferences.

“Federal money is the lever the federal government has to drive reform at the state and local level,” he said. He then critiqued how the Obama administration used this approach with NCLB waivers and Race to the Top grants.

“Waiver process did not just grant flexibility to states but set forth a whole host of conditions states had to subscribe to [that] have no basis in the law,” West said.

Requiring states to make policy changes to get federal funds during a recession was a “catalyst” for states that opted in, Schnur replied.

He did highlight two areas the president and Education Secretary Arne Duncan believe the federal government should not interfere in education: By passing a federal Parent Trigger law or limiting collective bargaining.

Common Core Politics
Duncan has rebuked conservatives for saying administration requirements that states adopt Common Core education standards to receive a NCLB waiver or RTT grant amounted to a federal imposition on states, moderator and AEI education director Rick Hess noted. He then asked Schnur if this conflicted with the 2012 Democratic Party platform, which hailed the president for pushing states to improve education standards.

The president has done two things, Schnur responded: Supported the state-organized standards with federal dollars and required not the Common Core but any high-quality standards common to several states.

West said no standards meet that definition but the Core.

“[Mitt Romney] supports voluntary efforts by states but is opposed to having federal government coerce—even in subtle ways—states to participate in certain standards,” West said.


Learn More:
“Education Reform in the White House” debate video, American Enterprise Institute, October 16, 2012: http://aei.org/events/2012/10/16/education-reform-in-the-next-white-house-a-conversation-with-the-obama-and-romney-campaigns/


Image by Don Relyea.