Obama vs. Romney On Education: Dueling Views
Both men agree schools need to improve, but whose ideas are better?
By most any metric, the United States is far from atop the class in education.
American students rank 27th in math and 21st in science compared to students in 30 other industrialized countries, according to researcher William H. Schmidt of Michigan State University. By the end of 8th grade, U.S. students are two years behind their international peers in math.
A Broad Foundation education report found that 70 percent of eighth graders can’t read proficiently and most will never catch up.
And the problem starts early. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, kids in the United States start falling behind their Asian and European counterparts in core education performance as soon as fourth grade and continuing through high school.
As both President Barack Obama and the GOP challenger Mitt Romney campaign to lead the country into brighter educational days, Loop21.com takes a look at the two men’s contrasting positions on our nation’s schools and how best to improve our standing in the world.
Obama’s accomplishments in the theater of education include implementing the $4.35 billion Race to the Top competitive school grant program, which emphasizes high accountability and high standards in schools. Race to the Top rewards states that have improved their education standards across a variety of categories, while also learning from such programs and sharing the lessons with schools across the country. In addition, he has signed the Health Care and Education Affordability Act of 2010, increased funding for land-grant colleges, provided $5 billion for early learning programs under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, and provided nearly $2 billion in new funding for child care and development block grants.
Democrats, led by Obama, saved more than $60 billion in student loan programs by removing the banks-as-middlemen system. Instead, they pushed for the federal government to invest in students directly, ensuring that students have access to federal loans with reasonable interest rates.
The GOP begs to differ with the assertion that Obama has been good for education, enumerating the rising costs of higher education and its effect on families and the struggle college graduates face to find jobs. Republicans suggest Romney is better suited to the task of bringing America back from to greatness.
Along the campaign trail over the past few weeks Romney has anchored his current position in his accomplishments of the past, recalling his time as governor of Massachusetts, when his state finished first in the country in fourth and eighth grade National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) performance exams. The distinction marked the first time in history a state had achieved this accomplishment.
In attacking the president, Romney said, “President Obama did not create the problems in our education system, but he has compounded some, ignored others, and failed to pursue efforts worthy of the challenge’s severity and scale.” He continued, “While he has spoken at great length about education — its importance, its challenges, its reforms — his rhetoric has not been matched by action. To the contrary, his approach to education reform is entrenching the very model that has produced today’s broken system.”
Romney’s particularly hawkish on public sector teachers unions, singling them out as the clogging mechanism in the country’s educational progress. “This is the civil rights issue of our time," Romney said. "President Obama has been unable to stand up to union bosses and unwilling to stand up for kids."
Conversely, the President suggests that there is a need to “make sure we’re not just blaming teachers,” pushing back on what he deems “teacher bashing” as evidence of reform. “When I meet teachers all across the country, they are so devoted, so dedicated to their kids”, he said during an interview with NBC’s Savannah Guthrie during the network’s Education Nation special. “They work so hard. They’re putting money out of their own pockets every single day.”
A place of true agreement, a rarity in this divisive political cycle, is that both men agree on the value of higher education and the need to stem the skyrocketing costs of college. The two differ, though, on the federal government’s role in helping students to graduate school without massive debt weighing them down.
This past year, Obama led the charge to prevent federal student loan interest rates from doubling for more than 7 million students, while also stemming federal student loan repayments at 10 percent of income.
Obama’s website asserts Romney’s path is wrong for students struggling to pay tuition:
Mitt Romney’s plan to cut middle-class investments could slash Pell grants for nearly 9.6 million students, and he would eliminate the president’s college tax credit. His suggestion to students worried about paying for college is to “shop around.”
Whereas a main tenet of the Democratic Party is lower state-sponsored interest rates on student loans, the official Republican platform seeks to privatize all student loans, having the government only act as an “insurance guarantor for the private sector as they offer loans to students.” The official higher education platform of the Republican Party, of which Romney leads, also includes the call for getting “back to basics and to higher education programs directly related to job opportunities.”
Speaking in New Orleans at a National Urban League function, the president issued an executive order establishing the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for African Americans. He asserted: “A higher education in a 21st century cannot be a luxury. It is a vital necessity that every American should be able to afford.”
During his Sept. 5 announcement of his Black Leadership Council, which includes U.S. Reps. Allen West and Tim Scott, and Florida Lt. Gov. Jennifer Scott, Romney suggested he would work with black leaders to improve the economic and education picture for Black Americans, though he didn’t offer many specifics suggesting: “Together, we will work to end that downturn, and we will not rest until all Americans have the jobs they need, the quality education they are owed, and the opportunities they deserve.”
In addition to proposing the doubling of federal work-study jobs available to students, Obama has doubled the investment in Pell grant scholarships, which has made college more affordable for low- and middle-income students. Under the president’s leadership, Democrats created the American Opportunity Tax Credit worth up to $10,000 over four years of college.
The president has pledged to encourage colleges to keep their costs down by reducing federal aid for those that do not, providing increased investment for colleges that keep tuition affordable and provide good value.
Though a lot has been accomplished, the president acknowledges more can be done. In talking with NBC’s Guthrie, the president said, “All across the country, people want results.” He plans to continue the Race to the Top program and acknowledges that money isn’t everything, “From the perspective of Democrats we can't just sit on the status quo or say that money’s the only issue.”
Romney primarily advocates state level stewardship of schools, however he would take control of IDEA and Title 1 funding and “link that money to the student and allow them the choice to go to any school,” he said during an Education Nation forum this past week. He wants to “grade the schools themselves and then give students the choice to go to those schools.”
In mirroring the anti-collective-bargaining position that was played out on the national stage with the teachers unions fighting Wisconsin’s intransigent GOP Gov. Scott Walker, Romney said unions get in the way of progress. He says the way forward is through voucher programs and charter schools. Romney said he would “give students more choice, allow parents to have access to information about the quality of the schools.” Romney added that he wanted to make sure “we created incentives for school districts and states to offer more incentives for schools, to take away the barriers for charter schools, to take away the barriers to cyber learning.”
Romney and the official Republican platform calls for a refocus on research, stressing private-sector partnerships in fields such as healthcare, biomedicine, and energy. The platform makes a strong call for support of stem-cell research, without the destruction of embryonic stem cells, while also supporting a ban on “human cloning and the creation of or experimentation on human embryos.”
Overall, there is a structural combativeness towards public institutions of higher learning in the platform, which calls on “our public colleges and universities [to] be places of learning and the exchange of ideas, not zones of intellectual intolerance favoring the left.”
The former governor of Massachusetts, during the Education Nation forum asserted that higher education is “essential to the success of our economy and the well-being of so many of our citizens. Teachers are the answer.”
Both Romney and Obama purport to share a pro-teacher sentiment; it’s in the breadth and extent of support where the men differ.
“We’ve already seen 300,000 teachers fired across the country, and a consequence class size has gone up by 5 percent.” Obama told NBC. “They talk a good game about reform, but when you actually look at their budgets, they’re talking about slashing our investment in education by 20 to 25 percent.”