by David Gastwirth
This week’s Road to the White House focused on the role of K-12 education policy in this year’s presidential election. The panel, which featured some of the leading thought leaders, advocates, and experts from the world of education policy, covered topics ranging from the changes to federal education policy enacted by President Obama to more local developments in education reform, such as parent trigger statutes.
The session was pitched as an opportunity to examine the role of education policy in the campaign and candidate positions on education issues, but the primary conclusion that I took away from it was that K-12 education policy is largely on the sidelines this election season. And I am not the only one taking note of this. Karin Klein echoes this viewpoint in her recent LA Times editorial.
So let’s take a quick inventory of education policy attention in this presidential election. The convention speeches set the stage for education policy’s relatively anemic existence this campaign. In both cases, “insiders” surveyed by Whiteboard Advisors gave the highest remarks to non-candidate speakers at the conventions (Jeb Bush, Condi Rice, and Chris Christine for the RNC, and Bill Clinton and Arne Duncan for the DNC). Overall, these respondents proclaimed the Democrats the victors by a 2-1 margin when it comes to offering a compelling message on education policy. In horse-race politics, someone has to win.
Governor Romney made three references to education in his acceptance speech at the RNC Convention. He noted: “I am running for president to help create a better future . . . An America where every parent knows that their child will get an education that leads them to a good job and a bright horizon.” Additionally, Romney included education as the second part of his 5 part plan to create 12 million jobs: “Second, we will give our fellow citizens the skills they need for the jobs of today and the careers of tomorrow. When it comes to the school your child will attend, every parent should have a choice, and every child should have a chance.” His final remark about education related to his vision for a future America, and how its schools will not be “lagging behind the rest of the developed world.”
President Obama dedicated a rather hefty portion of his speech to education policy – at least in comparison to Governor Romney. Without sounding wonkish, Obama managed to touch on key policy initiatives from his first term, including the Common Core State Standards initiative and the removal of private lenders from federal student loan programs. Like Romney, Obama framed education as a key component of job creation and America’s economic vitality. After noting the importance of education in his life story, he said the following:
“For the first time in a generation, nearly every state has answered our call to raise their standards for teaching and learning. Some of the worst schools in the country have made real gains in math and reading. Millions of students are paying less for college today because we finally took on a system that wasted billions of taxpayer dollars on banks and lenders. And now you have a choice. We can gut education, or we can decide that in the United States of America, no child should have her dreams deferred because of a crowded classroom or a crumbling school. No family should have to set aside a college acceptance letter because they don’t have the money. No company should have to look for workers overseas because they couldn’t find any with the right skills here at home. That’s not our future. That is not our future. A government has a role in this. But teachers must inspire. Principals must lead. Parents must instill a thirst for learning. And students, you’ve got to do the work. And together, I promise you we can out-educate and out-compete any nation on earth. So help me. Help me recruit a hundred thousand math and science teachers within 10 years and improve early childhood education. Help give 2 million workers the chance to learn skills at their community college that will lead directly to a job. Help us work with colleges and universities to cut in half the growth of tuition costs over the next 10 years. We can meet that goal together. You can choose that future for America. That’s our future.”
Obama and Romney did touch on education policy in the first debate, thanks in large part to Jim Lehrer using public education as a lens for examining each candidate’s perspective on the role of government. Obama emphasized the federal role in education, proclaiming the virtues of his Race to the Top program and his initiative to recruit science and math teachers. After emphasizing the role of states and localities, Romney endorsed Race to the Top (although he gave credit to Secretary Arne Duncan instead of President Obama). Romney also made a brief reference to his proposal to provide federal funding for low-income and disabled students in the form of vouchers and a plan to make the quality of public schools more transparent via a school grading scheme – all in the hopes of promoting competition. When Obama tried to reframe the debate as a matter of funding priorities, particularly in light of Romney’s bold spending and tax reduction plan, Romney responded: “I’m not going to cut education funding. I don’t have any plan to cut education funding and grants that go to people going to college. I’m planning on continuing to grow, so I’m not planning on making changes there.” Apparently, Romney said just enough. According to Whiteboard Advisors, 66% of “insiders” gave Romney the victory for education policy in the debate, awarding him a B for his performance in this policy area (Obama scored a gentleman’s C).
Building on the sports analogy, education policy appears to get a limited amount of playing time. Education not the captain of the team or even in the starting lineup when it comes to the campaign repertoire, but when push comes to shove, the candidates give some token attention to the issue. Obama and Romney must have concluded education policy is not part of their road to victory this election. But why? I will explore a few potential explanations.
To begin, maybe the voting public just does not particularly care about education as a policy area or support significant reform. This does not appear to be the case. Survey results reported in a 2011 Education Next article by William Howell, Paul E. Peterson and Martin West does not support this explanation. 37% of Americans indicate that they pay “a great deal” or “quite a bit” of attention to education issues. Only 22% of Americans gave the nation’s schools an A or B grade. Americans are slightly more negative than positive in regards to teachers unions (33% to 29%), and there is general public opposition to tenure and support for vouchers and charter schools – key education reform proposals. Alas, it does not appear that voter (in)attention is the source of education policy’s sideline position.
Another potential explanation is that education is primarily the responsibility of states and localities, both in terms of spending and authority. Education represents only 4% of the federal budget (as compared to 28% of state and local spending). So maybe education is appropriately getting scant attention this campaign cycle, as time and policy bandwidth are precious commodities. Additionally, education is not a federal government function as outlined in the Constitution, so, as a result, the primary means by which the federal government influences the decisions of state governments and local school districts is through carrots, not sticks. Carrots come in the form of financial incentives and inducements, such as the competitive state grants contained in Race to the Top. Carrots cost money. The candidates are focusing on constraining government spending, not growing the budget.
K-12 education’s limited role in the campaign may result from a lack of divergence between the two sides on the education issue. After all, campaigns are about winning points by showing how one candidate offers superior policy ideas – or at least supports policy that is closer to the positions of particular voters. There are certainly some differences between the candidates, including the role of the federal government in promoting common standards across states (which Obama supports) and the use of vouchers (which Romney champions). But President Obama has bucked the education establishment (and some in his own party) by promoting charter schools and other education reforms, many of which are aligned with core GOP principles like the private enterprise, competition, and state/local control. In fact, Romney has frequently praised Race to the Top. His primary criticism, as explained in his education policy white paper, is that Race to the Top only represents 5% of total stimulus spending on education. Education as a policy domain has a history of being among the more bi-partisan in nature and has provided the Republican Party with a unique opportunity to forge connection with low-income and minority communities bearing the brunt of failing schools. It is important to remember that No Child Left Behind, the centerpiece of President George W. Bush’s education reform agenda and the most pronounced federal engagement in public education, was co-authored by some of the most powerful and prominent leaders from both parties – including Ted Kennedy and John Boehner – and passed both houses of Congress with widespread support. Chester E. Finn, Jr., a leading scholar of education policy and reform, contends in a National Affairs article that the bipartisan education alliance has eroded in the wake of the perceived failure of No Child Left Behind, but “the erosion of the old consensus has not been bellowed by the emergence of any clear alternative” and “fault lines run in many directions.” While education might no longer by bipartisan, it has not become clearly partisan. Partisanship helps promote clear lines of attack and reinforces candidate differences.
Maybe the candidates are avoiding the issue because they are afraid their past efforts are less than spectacular and will provide fodder for attacks. Despite the endemic challenges in American public education, I do not think that President Obama has any qualms about his record on education. But what about Romney’s record? As a governor, Mitt Romney arguably has more experience on the education issue – and a record to boot. In fact, Romney often refers to his experience leading public education in Massachusetts – which earned the highest reading and math scores in the country for both 4th and 8th graders during his term – when Obama questions his financial commitment to public education. The actual role that Romney played in promoting excellence in public education can certainly be debated given that the success of Massachusetts predates Romney’s term as governor. Arguably, Paul Ryan and the budget proposal he championed in Congress (which would result in nearly a 20% cut to federal education spending) represents the most pronounced threat to the Romney ticket.
Interest group politics may also play a role in the lack of attention to education by the candidates. While Obama has outraged teachers unions with some of his first-term initiatives, the Democrats still garner widespread support – both in terms of votes and money – from our nation’s education professionals. The National Education Association (NEA) and American Federation of Teachers (AFT) are among the largest, wealthiest, and most powerful interest groups in this country. Education reform groups, on the other hand, do not have significant infrastructure, deep pockets, or a cache of committed, reliable voters. Even if reform interests could unify, they lack equivalent power to offer incentives to – and mandate participation of – potential members. If money and voters gain the attention of candidates, it should come as no surprise that education reform is not receiving significant attention. In this case, forces supporting the status have the loudest voice. But maintaining the status quo does not make for interesting politics – and is not a particularly popular position given the relatively weak performance of American public education. Theories of collective action and interest groups explain, at least in part, why education policy is a peripheral player in the campaign.
These are just a few potential explanations for the campaign’s limited focus on K-12 education. Maybe I wasted my time over thinking this whole thing. In the words of James Carville, “It’s the economy, stupid.” But doesn’t human capital pave the way for economic growth? The candidates have even said that America must produce a highly-skilled workforce to compete in the global marketplace. And they acknowledge that our education system is central to this effort. Maybe the lack of rhetoric this campaign season is reflective of our true commitment to the theory of action. It is time to stop sidelining education.
What Obama and Romney say about education: Not Much LA Times editorial by Karin Klein
Convention Wisdom: 2012 National Conventions by Whiteboard Advisors September 2012
Transcript: Mitt Romney’s Acceptance Speech via NPR
Transcript: President Obama’s Convention Speech via NPR
Transcript of the First Presidential Debate via The New York Times
The Public Weighs In on School Reform by William Howell, Paul E. Peterson and Martin West via Educationnext
Piechart 2013 US Federal Spending http://www.usgovernmentspending.com/piechart_2013_US_fed
A Chance for Every Child: Mitt Romney’s Plan for Restoring the Promise of American Education via mittromney.com
The End of the Education Debate by Chester E. Finn, Jr. in National Affairs