This week surrogates from the Obama and Romney campaigns will discuss education policy issues here. You can see the first post by the Obama campaign below. This is a post by Marty West, a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and advisor to the Romney campaign:
As we head into the closing weeks of the 2012 presidential election, there’s no issue more critical to our long-term success as a nation than the need for education reform. So I’m grateful to Eduwonk for sharing his space this week with advisors to both candidates’ campaigns—and hopeful that our discussion will clarify the differences between Governor Romney and President Obama on the best way forward.
What differences, you say? It is true that both candidates acknowledge the need for dramatic improvement to ensure economic strength and make good on our promise of equal opportunity. President Obama has talked the talk on the value of creating more charter schools and developing new systems for teacher evaluation—policies Governor Romney and his fellow Republicans have long supported. And his administration’s vaunted Race to the Top grant competition led several states to lift caps on charter enrollment and to dismantle data system firewalls preventing student test scores from being linked to their teachers.
To his credit, Governor Romney has consistently praised this aspect of the president’s record – while pointing out that it is just a small piece of a larger, more concerning picture. Federal education policy under President Obama has been a tale of two administrations, one superficially reform-oriented and the other tightly wedded to an outdated status quo. While the former has received the most attention, the latter has apparently controlled the budget process.
Race to the Top, for example, made up just four percent of the $100 Billion in (borrowed) funds spent on education under the president’s 2009 stimulus bill. The rest, a rough doubling of annual federal education spending, went out to states and districts with no strings attached and did little to help advance reform or stimulate the economy. More money for more of the same is not change, nor does it provide hope for America’s students. In higher education, the Obama administration has increased federal aid for students but done nothing to rein in out-of-control tuition increases. The cost of a college education has risen by 25 percent since he took office, more students are borrowing more money than ever before, and total student debt has reached a record $1 Trillion. As a result, we’re no closer to the president’s own goal of leading the world in college degree completion by 2020 than we were four years ago.
Even when it comes to Race to the Top, reality falls short of the rhetoric. The application process all but required a union sign-off for states to be competitive, sharply curtailing their flexibility to experiment with new models of evaluation and compensation. (The successor competition for districts has eliminated the “all but.”) And even those watered-down applications are proving tough to implement. Each winning state has amended its plans at least once—most of them have done so repeatedly. Yet the Department has little recourse at this point to hold them accountable for their promises. Meanwhile, the president has failed to work with Congress to address the single most pressing policy challenge in federal education policy: the long overdue and much-needed reauthorization of No Child Left Behind.
President Obama and his surrogates now accuse his challenger of wanting to “gut education” spending. The president’s decision to defend his record of “investment” in education is understandable (health care and green energy must not be faring well with focus groups). But his attacks on Governor Romney are inconsistent with the facts. As Governor Romney told voters during last week’s debate, “I don’t want to cut our commitment to education.” Despite the president’s claims, Governor Romney has proposed no reductions in federal education spending. And he and Paul Ryan know that controlling the rising costs of entitlements is in fact the only way to preserve the ability of state and local governments to support their schools in the future. The president, in contrast, has no plan to address the $58 Billion budget shortfall facing the Pell Grant program or to pay for a permanent fix for student loan interest rates, scheduled to rise next year.
Importantly, Governor Romney went on to commit to making federal education spending “more effective and efficient.” Over the course of the campaign, he has laid out an agenda that will not only accomplish this task, but drive much-needed improvement throughout the American education system.
The critical step is to refocus the federal government’s energies on the tasks it is best-positioned to accomplish. In K-12, this means expanding parental choice over the school their child attends; providing parents and taxpayers with transparent information about school quality and school spending so that they can make sound decisions; and using existing funds nominally aimed at improving teacher quality to incentivize new approaches to recruit and retain effective teachers. In higher education, it means strengthening and simplifying the federal financial aid system to ensure its sustainability; equipping prospective students with information about the completion and loan repayment rates of specific institutions; and eliminating regulations that constrain innovation, limit competition, and drive up costs. Our next post will explain how this agenda will help restore the promise of American education.