During last night’s Presidential Debate, both candidates linked education into their arguments as a major workforce development issue- rhetoric that is often used by education and labor advocates but less often by presidential candidates, who are more likely to focus on the economy and other top-tier voting priorities.
Romney swung towards the center on many issues last night, and education was chief among them. When it comes to education and student aid, Romney said, “I'm not planning on making changes there.” Once again, he praised Education Secretary Arne Duncan and Race to the Top, and often focused more on what he had in common with Obama’s education policies than where they differ. One big exception, however, came when he touted his “backpack” program, in which students can use Title I and IDEA funds to attend whichever public school they choose. Some have called this a voucher program, though Romney hasn’t used that terminology to describe it.
Obama went after Romney’s approach to balancing the budget, saying that Romney would make cuts that would “[gut] our investments in schools and education.” When Romney announced Paul Ryan as his running mate, the Ryan budget raised eyebrows among many with its drastic cuts in domestic discretionary spending, a pool that includes education. As I and my colleague Clare McCann have noted on Early Ed Watch before, Ryan’s budget could have a big impact on federal education spending—though it won’t necessarily “gut” every education program.
But there’s also reason to believe that a Ryan-Romney administration might try to avoid decimating education spending: Romney has a history of maintaining education funding from his time as governor. Ryan’s proposals to cut up to 20 percent of domestic discretionary spending are less encouraging, but unlike many Tea Party members, Paul Ryan appears to see some role for the federal government in education: He voted for both No Child Left Behind in 2001 and the Head Start Reauthorization Act in 2007. (While these laws are not designed to dictate annual funding levels, they do set goals for how federal agencies will use federal dollars.)
In early education, Romney cut Massachusetts state-funded pre-K by small amounts towards the beginning of his term but increased it in subsequent years. President Obama, by comparison, has consistently asked for increases in K-12 and early education programs in his budget requests.
During the election season, both Romney and his running mate have had an incentive to claim they would downplay or eliminate the federal role in education to play to Tea Party voters, who feel strongly about limited government involvement. But last night, Romney was—though not exactly an advocate—a moderate within his party on education.
A few other education moments in last night’s debate:
Romney punts the Big Bird vote
Romney did put one education-related program on the chopping block last night: the Public Broadcasting System. “I'm sorry, Jim [Lehrer]. I'm going to stop the subsidy to PBS. I'm going to stop other things. I like PBS. I love Big Bird. I actually like you too. But I'm not going to — I'm not going to keep on spending money on things to borrow money from China to pay for it,” he said.
Sesame Workshop, which relies in part on PBS for its funding, has been developing educational programming with an aim of helping low-income young children for over 40 years. One 2001 study showed that Sesame Street’s impact on a child’s reading gains and overall academic achievement lasted through high school. But Sesame Workshop’s reach has extended beyond its TV programming. In addition to producing Sesame Street, the workshop’s research arm focuses on creating better children’s media and invests a lot of time and money on studying and distributing research on the impact of educational digital media on children’s growth and development.
A hundred thousand more math and science teachers
President Obama touted plans to hire a hundred thousand more teachers and mentioned a teacher he met in Las Vegas who had 42 students in her class. Early Ed Watch has discussed large class sizes in Nevada before, but the research on whether small class sizes really improve learning is mixed when considering public school classrooms up through the 12th grade. A 2011 report from the Brookings Institute, however, added to previous research showing that small class sizes can make a difference in younger classrooms.
Another proposal that Romney emphasized last night is his plan to give schools report cards with grades that provide information to parents. According to a white paper released by Romney’s campaign earlier this year, the report cards would “evaluate schools and districts on an A through F or similar scale based primarily on their contribution to achievement growth.”
Providing parents and the public with information on how public schools are achieving is important. But schools do have these report cards already: Parents and the public can go to a state’s Department of Education website and access information on a given school including its No Child Left Behind accountability data. Some states even use an A-F grading scale. Romney’s plan to provide parents with report cards is essentially a plan to repackage existing report cards as tools to help parents choose better schools.