Can Romney, Obama Learn to Share on Education?

PHOTO: Barack Obama, Jeb Bush and Arne DuncanPablo Martinez Monsivais/AP Photo
President Barack Obama, accompanied by former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, right, and Education Secretary Arne Duncan, gestures while speaking at Miami Central Senior High School in Miami, March, 4, 2011.

Pop quiz: Who said this?

"Education achievement is not a Republican issue or a Democrat issue. It is an issue of national priority."

How about this? "We come together not as Democrats or Republicans, but as Americans — to lift up all of our schools."

Or this? "Education is one issue where it should be easy to find common purpose and common solutions."

If you said Barack Obama, you're right. We also would have accepted Mitt Romney and Jeb Bush as correct answers.

The president and his Republican opponent have starkly different views on a host of "issues" — health care, gay marriage, energy, baseball — but if they were forced to pick one area on which they could work together, it would probably be education.

Bush, the former governor of Florida, has played a role in both of their plans.

In March 2011, Bush introduced Obama at a high school in Miami where they both talked about improving the state of education. Obama said he was "so grateful" to the brother of the president he demonized so often in 2008.

Now, Bush is mentioned every now and then as a possible running mate for Obama's opponent, Mitt Romney. And Tuesday, Romney unveiled his education plan — which includes a "foreword" by Bush.

One wonders what Romney and Obama might talk about if they ever sat down together in a classroom.

In Romney's proposal, the former Massachusetts governor calls for "rewarding great teachers." The plan says: "A school is only as strong as its teachers, but the most promising teachers often find it difficult to reach the classroom door or receive recognition for their efforts once inside. Romney's reforms smooth the path for talented individuals to join the profession and shape the next generation."

That sounds familiar.

Last month, Obama said in front of a room of educators at the White House, "We should be giving states the resources to keep good teachers on the job and reward the best ones."

Also — Romney's plan centers on the idea of giving poor students the chance to attend whatever public school they want, including charter schools. "These students must have access to attractive options, which will require support for the expansion of successful charter schools and for greater technology use by schools," the proposal says.

Obama also supports charter schools. "There are some charters that have figured out how to do a very good job," Obama said in September 2010. "What we've got to do is look at the success of these schools and find out how do we duplicate them?"

There are other similarities.

In a speech Tuesday, Romney frequently bashed unions. "The teachers unions are the clearest example of a group that has lost its way," Romney said. "Whenever anyone dares to offer a new idea, the unions protest the loudest."

While Obama has been friendlier to unions, he hasn't shied from provoking them. In his first major speech on education, Obama alluded to his disagreements with unions, saying, "Too many supporters of my party have resisted the idea of rewarding excellence in teaching with extra pay, even though we know it can make a difference in the classroom."

The candidates also have similar feelings about the "No Child Left Behind" law.

Romney, whose plan is called "A Chance for Every Child," said in his speech that the Bush-era law "helped our nation take a giant step forward in bridging the information gap," but that it was "not without its weaknesses."

In September, Obama said in a speech that "the goals behind No Child Left Behind were admirable, and President Bush deserved credit for that."

"But experience has taught us that, in its implementation, No Child Left Behind had some serious flaws that are hurting our children instead of helping them," Obama went on to say.

In a statement backing Romney's plan, even top surrogate Bob McDonnell, the Republican governor of Virginia, conceded that Obama "has expressed some positive ideas on how to reform our schools." (McDonnell's statement also says that Obama "refuses to challenge the unions that will do anything to protect the status quo.")

Perhaps appropriately, education, while being the area where Obama gets maybe the most GOP support, is the one arena in which he has the least power. Schools are controlled almost entirely by local governments, and despite some efforts from the federal government to help — like Obama's "Race to the Top" contest — most of the power lies with the states and cities.

But the campaigns are unlikely to admit they share some of the same ideas. And they are giving the indication that they're opposed to each other's plans, despite the details they may share.

"I'll be blunt," Romney said in his speech. "I don't like the direction of American education, and as president, I will do everything in my power to get education on track for the kids in this great land."

White House press secretary Jay Carney mocked Romney Tuesday, asking reporters rhetorically, "Is that the first time that Gov. Romney has mentioned education since he began running for president this time?"

"It's the first time I've heard of it," Carney said. "As I recall, education never came up in the Republican primaries in any of the debates. Or if it did, it came up almost never."

Carney added: "It's certainly welcome after a long, long campaign season to know that the Republican candidate actually has something to say about education."