October 26, 2012
By Ted Williams III
This essay was released as part of the Center for Public Justice 2012 Election Guide.
In this election, as in most recent presidential elections, education has failed to receive the level of sustained attention it deserves. While Medicare, foreign policy and the economy have attracted great interest, the distinctions between the two major candidates on the issue of education are noteworthy and warrant significant discussion.
In 2008, then-candidate Barack Obama complained about No Child Left Behind, specifically the lack of funding that was provided to the states to fulfill the law’s regulations. Yet much of NCLB has been left untouched by Obama’s administration, although they have allowed 34 states to opt out of various provisions. In fact, Obama and U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan have continued the focus on standardized testing, the hallmark of the legislation. Their 2009 Race to the Top initiative, which provided monetary awards to states who met federal goals for innovation, has significantly increased the number of charter schools and private organizations involved in American education. With respect to higher education, he has raised the maximum Pell Grant award to $5,500. Additionally, he signed an Executive Order to cap repayments of federal student loans for low-income borrowers at 10 percent of discretionary income and allow for forgiveness after 20 years. These efforts have proven to be very popular among voters, yet have not significantly changed educational outcomes thus far.
Mitt Romney’s education plan offers a variety of moderate reforms to the current system. These include continuing the push for charter schools, streamlining teacher certification requirements to aid in recruitment, and encouraging greater accountability. However, what is more important to examine is his record as governor of Massachusetts. During only one term, test scores went up and the number of charter schools in the state increased from 46 to 59. He added science testing as a graduation requirement and raised the bar for overall student scores. He also created a set of scholarships that covered tuition at state colleges and advocated for teacher evaluations to be tied to student performance. Furthermore he supported a ballot initiative that ended bilingual education and replaced it with English immersion as a way of promoting immigrant student achievement.
What is critical to understand is that there really is only one truly substantial distinction between the approaches of the two candidates. Romney has consistently supported the issue of vouchers, and Obama has consistently rejected the school choice approach. The Obama administration did not include increased funds for the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship, one that provided access to private schools for low-income children, in its FY2013 budget, although an agreement was later reached between the education department and Congress to add a modest number of scholarships for this school year in order to provide a statistically significant sample size for a Congressionally mandated program. Philosophically, along with most Democrats, he has opposed the idea of using public dollars to support private—often religious—schools. School choice, while a rallying cry for current school reform efforts, has only extended to public schools. Romney has consistently taken the pro-voucher position.
Both candidates have adopted the model of increased testing, accountability and merit-based incentives for innovation. While there are many other differences among the candidates, these methods clearly represent areas of commonality that are consistent with national trends. However, a pluralistic and holistic approach to education reform is vital for a democratic system with diverse educational needs. The efforts of both gentlemen must be evaluated in this light. For this reason, Romney’s commitment to school choice that includes private options clearly separates him. While he must also include a pledge to address funding inequities and the socio-economic disparities that impact student achievement, a comprehensive approach to reform that includes school choice is the most promising solution to our national educational conundrum.
—Ted Williams III is a Professor of Political Science in the City Colleges of Chicago.