Education

Romney and Obama differ sharply on education choice and control

Photo of Robert Holland
Robert Holland
Senior Fellow, The Heartland Institute

Now that Mitt Romney has taken a stand for local and parental control of education and against federalized Common Core standards and tests, the issue of education has come into sharp focus in the presidential race.

The distinctions could become even clearer and education might even become a key issue, depending on how the Obama/Romney debates play out beginning Wednesday.

At the September 25 Education Nation Summit in New York, Romney said that as president he would propose incentives for states to offer parents plenty of information to help them choose the best schools for their children.

To do what Washington can to generate more choices, Romney said he would link money from IDEA and Title I — the two huge programs for special-needs and low-income children — to students rather than to bureaucracies, so that affected families could choose the schools, public or private, best for them. In effect, that would be a nationwide extension of the successful experiment with school choice vouchers in Washington, D.C., that Congress first authorized in 2002 and which the Obama administration has repeatedly tried to kill.

When NBC’s Brian Williams asked his take on the Common Core standards, Romney did not waffle as some supporters of local control had feared he might:

“I don’t subscribe to the idea of the federal government trying to push a Common Core on various states,” said the former Massachusetts governor. “It’s one thing to put it out as a model and let people adopt it as they will, but to financially reward states based upon accepting the federal government’s idea of a curriculum, I think, is a mistake. And the reason I say that is that there may be a time when the government has an agenda that it wants to promote.”

Prior to that response, there had been uncertainty about Romney’s position, given that local-control advocates were unable to get a statement of opposition to the Common Core into the GOP platform at the party’s convention in Tampa. In addition, several past and present Republican governors, including Romney education adviser Jeb Bush, have backed the national standards.

Romney also minced no words when asked about federal aid to help the 46 Common Core states pay the costs of implementation, which have been estimated at upwards of $16 billion. They’re “on their own” because education is a state responsibility, he said — and besides Washington already is $16 trillion in the red and counting.

Here begins a major point of difference with President Obama, who used $4.5 billion of borrowed “stimulus” money for a Race to the Top that pressured money-hungry states to adopt the Common Core curricular prescriptions even before they had been released.

In his Education Nation interview with NBC’s Savannah Guthrie, Obama called Race to the Top his “key reform” and said he would seek to expand it in a second term. This is how he put it:

“What we’ve said to school districts is, ‘You’ve gotta emphasize high accountability, high standards. Make sure that teachers know that we’re going to be paying attention to the actual outcomes for kids. But we’re also going to give more resources to schools who are doing the right thing: training teachers, providing them the professional development and support they need.”

The editorial “we” in that comment could be called the federal “we,” because Obama plainly is talking about his administration calling the shots through the standards and the linked assessments (which are currently being developed with another $360 million of federal taxpayer money). Teachers would be accountable for meeting federally defined “outcomes” and trained to federal specifications.

Obama said he is “a big proponent of charter schools.” (He stoutly opposes school vouchers, however.) When independently managed, charters can give parents some choice within the public school system. However, if they are to be under the same Common Core umbrella as regular public schools, there will be precious little real choice.

The ultimate choice will rest with voters on November 6. Which course would be more likely to improve the quality of K-12 schooling: Obama’s plan for continued federalization via incentive grants, regulation, and conditional waivers, or Romney’s plan to empower consumers and restore local control?

Robert Holland (rholland@heartland.org) is a senior fellow for education policy with The Heartland Institute.