While the most recent presidential debate was supposed to have focused on foreign policy, President Obama unexpectedly brought up the topic of education policy multiple times. The president attempted to illustrate a link between America’s strength in math and science education with the country’s ability to maintain its spot as a top economic power. While Obama highlighted his administration’s investments in education, Romney touted Massachusetts’s success in education during his tenure as governor.
Despite their verbal sparring, both candidates seemed to at least to agree on the importance of education. An educated populace provides the foundation for future growth and innovation, as well as the ability for citizens to actively participate in their nation’s democracy. The question remains: Which candidate’s policies will be more effective?
One of Obama’s main policy initiatives is the Race to the Top program, which incentivized states to reform their K-12 education system to meet certain criteria that include greater emphasis on teacher evaluations, expanding charter schools, implementing Common Core Standards and promoting methods to turnaround low achieving schools. However, some critics argue that Race to the Top will not improve education because of the narrowing of curricula due to the increased focus on standardized testing and because, on average, charter schools do to perform better than public schools.
Obama has also pushed his agenda by granting waivers to 33 states from central provisions of the Bush administration’s signature No Child Left Behind Act. States received waivers as long as they create their own accountability plans narrowing achievement gaps and prepare students for college, as opposed to NCLB’s strict target calling for all students to be proficient in reading and mathematics by 2014. Phil Handy, an advisor to Romney, said that the waivers would be reviewed under a Romney administration. He said a Romney administration would push for reauthorizing NCLB, and if that doesn’t happen, then it would try to return to NCLB as written.
Obama has also increased funding for Head Start, the federal program that provides preschool training for children from low-income families, but has also pushed to reform it. Last spring, he announced that Head Start programs, for the first time, would have to meet certain standards to qualify for the renewal of federal grants. Underperforming local programs must to compete with other providers for federal funding.
Romney’s main policy proposal is to overhaul the federal government’s education programs into a voucher-like system. Students would be given $25 billion in federal grants to attend a school of their choice, whether it be public, private, charter, or online. Romney believes that his program would expand student choice and that by competing for students, schools would have to improve in order to attract students.
Yet critics contend that there is limited evidence of schools improving much as they compete for students. One notable skeptic, Margaret Spellings, a former education secretary under Mr. Bush, said that having vouchers and choice as the drivers of school accountability is “untried and untested.” There’s also the additional problem for students for whom distance from school can be a problem. Students in rural areas may have only one school nearby that they can attend, making school choice irrelevant. Similarly, disabled students who cannot travel very far to attend school would also not benefit from school choice.
Romney has also spoken about during his time in office, Massachusetts’s public schools ranked number one based on standardized testing results. But education experts have attributed that to a 1993 school reform law passed under another Republican governor, William Weld, that called for increased state funding and more involvement in setting school curricula.
While Obama criticized Massachusetts’s cuts in education when Romney became governor, those cuts may not be directly attributed to the governor. In 2003, Romney inherited Massachusetts’s $600 million budget deficit but spared education from cuts in his budget proposals. The democratically-controlled legislature, however, made the cuts anyway and Romney signed those cuts into law.
Despite each of their efforts to differentiate themselves from one other, one may question how much of an impact each candidate’s polices have had while they were in office. Romney inherited a state that had invested heavily in education before he took office. While he proposed some new education legislation as governor, most of them failed to become law. Romney’s job of maintaining the quality of Massachusetts’s schools was far easier than Obama’s job of having to fix schools throughout the country. In Obama’s case, it’s hard to see significant improvements in the nation’s schools as a result of his polices, though that may be because his policies need more time to be in full effect. In the end, given the fact that only 10 percent of public K-12 education is from the federal government, one questions the extent to which the federal government can actually influence the quality education in this country.