How do President Obama and Government Romney Compare on Education Reform?

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The presidential horserace continues in earnest after President Obama’s acceptance speech last night.  Now that both conventions have wrapped up, we can take a closer look at what the two parties propose for education. Last week I wrote about we can expect from a Romney White House—more school choice and support for the private sector in education.  In last night’s speech, President Obama didn’t put forth new ideas on education but rather reiterated his commitment to the work the U.S. Department of Education has been pursuing for the last four years. Should the president be re-elected, we should expect to see continuing investments in competitive programs like Race to the Top, support for the state-led Common Core standards effort, increased dollars for community colleges and federal student aid, and likely more aid to prevent  teacher lay-offs as state budgets remain tight. What the Obama Administration has highlighted as its education successes is telling: saving 400,000 educator jobs, supporting Common Core State Standards, and promoting college affordability.

The 2012 Democratic and Republican platforms espouse many similar ideas: promote excellence in teaching by holding teachers accountable for student success and training institutions accountable for teacher success; provide high-quality options for all students; address the rising costs of higher education; and encourage educational innovation. The devil—or the difference—is in the details.   

In the first term, the Obama Administration has used federal carrots—through Race to the Top grants and ESEA waivers—to encourage states to implement teacher evaluation systems that tie teacher performance and pay to student achievement, and end HR practices like “Last in, first out.” The Administration is also expected to release new regulations for schools of education, which ties grant eligibility to the success of an institution’s graduates.  Romney’s education plan also supports performance-based teacher evaluations and pay, reforming teacher tenure and hiring teachers based on skill, not credentials. His education white paper suggests fixing this through reforming the “highly qualified teacher” section of No Child Left Behind. When it comes to holding schools of education accountable, the Romney plan, however, vaguely notes that they want to see states promoting intellectual freedom in university teacher programs. It’s unclear if they see a federal role here.

When it comes to school choice, the 2012 Democratic Platform notes that an Obama White House will continue to “work to expand public school choice for low-income youth, including magnet schools, charter schools, teacher-led schools, and career academies.” Governor Romney’s is equally—if not more—enthusiastic about school choice . However, his plan favors giving parents a choice between traditional public, public charter, and private schools.  His plan also proposes to shift federal Title I and IDEA dollars from schools to parents, allowing parents to take those dollars where they please—including to private schools.

When it comes to higher education, we see the biggest differences between President Obama and Governor Romney. The Obama Administration nationalized student loans in early 2010, has doubled Pell Grant scholarships, and has established delayed loan-repayment plans for graduates who are taking jobs in the public sector.  This year, President Obama promised to withhold federal funds from postsecondary institutions that do not address rising tuition, and last night he proposed cutting half the growth of tuition in the next decade.  Finally, The President proposes to continue to closely regulate for-profit colleges. Meanwhile, the Romney plan proposes to take the opposite approach. The Republican platform notes that Romney will welcome private sector student lending as well as competition for traditional four-year colleges from private training schools, online universities, and job-based learning.  

Lastly, one of the biggest differences between the two candidates is how they plan to support innovation. The Obama administration plans to support innovation through more federal grants like the Investing in Innovation Fund (i3) and the School Improvement Grants while Governor Romney suggests a more market-based approach, by deregulating education to allow more for-profit companies to compete with traditional public education.  The candidates’ different philosophies echo the larger party differences we saw during last year’s attempt to reauthorize No Child Left Behind: what is the role of the federal government?

Both President Obama and Governor Romney believe in the power of education to change lives for the better and open the door to a stronger economy. There are no easy answers, but as the campaigns unfold the nation will have the opportunity to evaluate both plans and decide what policies will shape educational reform in the next four years. 

Peter Cookson is a Senior Advisor to Whiteboard Advisors. He also serves as the President of Ideas without Borders and is an adjunct professor at Teacher's College at Columbia University. 

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