It’s back-to-school time, as President Obama reminded the nation in his annual back-to-school speech today. And during election season, no school year begins without stirring up education reform debates.
But this election is all about the economy and will likely revolve around what role the federal government should play in stimulating job growth, not how much it should spend on merit pay or standardized testing.
So when it comes to education policy debates, whether it’s the Democratic incumbent or the array of Republican challengers, all eyes – and talking points – are on two things: the federal government’s role and the overall cost.
“The meta-narrative [for Republican presidential candidates] is obviously pushing back on health care reform and on the stimulus,” said Rick Hess, the director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute. “Obama’s education agenda is being framed by the GOP, and especially the Tea Party, in light of those other elements.”
From the president’s perspective, America’s schools are crumbling and Washington needs to step in and invest $30 billion to rebuild them, a move Obama has said will both “create a better learning environment,” and, “create good jobs for local construction workers.”
But more government spending is just about the last thing on the minds of any GOP presidential candidate. Rather than pushing for further investments, White House hopefuls are touting their ability to rein in spending.
In New Jersey, where rumors abound that Gov. Chris Christie may toss his hat into the GOP race, the governor used a line-item veto to strip $500 million from education funding. Christie also helped usher in public employee pension reform which will save the state $130 billion over the next 30 years, a move that, coupled with decreases in collective bargaining rights, infuriated teachers unions.
Faced with a $15 billion budget deficit this year, Texas Gov. Rick Perry signed off on $4 billion in cuts to education in the 2012 and 2013 budgets. The Texas State Teachers Association estimates that as many as 49,000 teachers may be laid off as a result of the cuts and 43,000 college students will lose all or part of their financial aid.
Education Secretary Arne Duncan said in August that the Texas school system “has really struggled” while Rick Perry has been in the state house and that he feels “very, very badly for the children there.”
But while Texas spends less per student than almost any other state, the Lone Star state’s test scores fall within a few points of the national average in both reading and math. High school graduation rates are within 2 percentage points of the national average as well.
“The president’s secretary of education may want to do a little more homework before commenting on education in Texas,” Perry’s spokesman Mark Miner said shortly after Duncan’s comments were aired on Bloomberg.
Perhaps the biggest beef Perry has had with the Department of Education was over the administration’s Race to the Top competitive state grant program. Texas was one of four states that chose not to participate in the $4 billion program that Perry said “smacks of a federal takeover of public schools” and “could very well lead to the ‘dumbing down’ of the rigorous standards we’ve worked so hard to enact.”
Perry is not alone in his dislike of the federal program. In fact, his fellow GOP candidates, Michele Bachmann, Gary Johnson and Ron Paul, not only condemn Race to the Top but have said they would do away with the entire Department of Education.
At the last GOP debate, Bachmann said that if elected, she would “go over to the federal Department of Education, I’d turn off the lights, I’d lock the door and I’d send all the money back to the states and localities.”
If Christie decides to jump in the race, he would be the only GOP contender that supports Race to the Top. Under Christie’s direction, New Jersey fiercely competed for the federal funds, but because of an application error lost out on a potential $400 million grant.
Christie is one of the only candidates who has praised any part of the Obama administration’s education policies. In April, Christie said Duncan has been “a great ally” in education reform and that he and the secretary have “a lot in common … in the education reform agenda.”
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, on the other hand, has tried to distance himself from the Obama administration’s education policies. At a recent debate in Florida, he challenged accusations from Perry that he had flip-flopped on his support for Race to the Top, saying, “I don’t support any particular program that’s he’s describing.”
While Romney has not called for closing down the Department of Education, he stressed that “we need to get the federal government out of education.”
As governor of Massachusetts, Romney pushed to double the number of spots available at charter schools and vetoed a bill that would have put a moratorium on expanding the school choice program.
Jeanne Allen, the president of the Center for Education Reform, said Romney and Christie are similar in their stances on education in that they each take about half of their education policy from Obama’s book and about half from former president George W. Bush’s.
“The distinction is that neither would likely have an appetite for the kinds of jobs bill and money approach that makes Obama unique right now,” Allen said.
Under a Romney or Christie administration, there would be “a balance,” she said, between the federal role and the state role.
“It would be less heavy handed than we are seeing now under Obama,” Allen said.