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Romney, Obama differ on education ideology

By Camilla Benbow

(Originally printed in The Tennessean on October 25, 2012)

With the election looming, let us take a look at where the two major candidates for president stand on education.

The past four years tell us a fair amount about President Barack Obama’s education priorities. He included nearly $100 billion in funds for education within the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), the “stimulus.” Almost half went to preserve teacher jobs and make up for state budget cuts to schools and districts during the worst part of the economic crisis. According to the Center on Education Policy, in 2011, a majority of states reported that this money had saved or created jobs for school personnel.

ARRA also funded the Race to the Top, a grant competition of which Tennessee was one of the first recipients. Race to the Top is the primary vehicle the administration has used to encourage states to strengthen academic standards, reform teacher evaluation to incorporate student test scores, expand charter schools and turn around failing schools. It is, frankly, too early to gauge the program’s effectiveness.
NCLB waivers

President Obama has not succeeded in obtaining a reauthorization of the Elementary and Second Education Act, also known as No Child Left Behind. With so many states unable to meet NCLB’s strict requirements for student progress, the Obama education department has bypassed Congress to offer waivers while requiring that states step up their reform efforts. The administration also has encouraged states to improve teacher preparation, and it has demanded that low-performing Head Start programs get better or lose their funding.

In higher education, the administration has expanded Pell Grants to increase college access, in part by moving to direct federal student lending rather than subsidized lending through private banks.

Gov. Mitt Romney strongly supports parental choice. He has notably proposed that federal Title1 and IDEA funds should follow low-income and special needs students as vouchers to any public or private school of their choice, including schools outside of their district. He would expand the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, which awards federal funds as need-based scholarships to attend private schools.

While the governor has not called for eliminating the Department of Education, his campaign spokesmen have argued that the department’s NCLB waivers are too prescriptive and would be subject to review. He wants report cards available on all schools as a means of using transparency to leverage improvement. He has not spoken out against the Common Core standards being implemented in almost all states but says states should be free to establish their own standards.

Romney has been critical of teachers unions and generally supportive of efforts that would make it easier to fire teachers and principals or convert schools to charters. He would offer block grants to help states establish new teacher-evaluation systems and reform certification and tenure rules.

On higher education, Romney says he wants the federal government out of the direct lending business and would return that function to private lenders. He also is generally supportive of the for-profit education sector.

Of course, few voters choose a candidate based on a single issue. Candidates Romney and Obama share a commitment to reform but diverge in their beliefs on the role the federal government should play in achieving it.

Camilla P. Benbow is Patricia and Rodes Hart Dean of Education and Human Development at Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College. Her column on education appears every other Thursday in The Tennessean Local section.