Education briefly took center stage at the second presidential debate, with Republican candidate Mitt Romney and Democratic President Barack Obama trading jabs over school budgets and teaching jobs. And with debates about college tuition, K-12 funding, teachers unions and a swarm of other issues still raging, there's no question that education issues will fill the plate of whichever candidate wins the Oval Office.
But overall, education policies have been dancing at the margins of this year's political contest. What would a Romney or Obama presidency mean for schools and universities?
Last Thursday, Oct. 25, Stanford's EAST (Education and Society Theme) House turned the spotlight on the candidates' education policies. Eric Hanushek, the Paul and Jean Hanna Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution, and a prominent figure in the economic analysis of education, and Michael Kirst, professor emeritus of education and business administration, who currently is president of the California State Board of Education, engaged in a back-and-forth before a largely student audience.
The candidates have taken starkly different positions on certain issues, such as school vouchers, student grants and loans, and for-profit education. Overall, however, the speakers agreed that the differences were subtle.
"It's hard to see much light between them," said Hanushek.
The event, moderated by education Associate Professor Anthony Antonio, resident fellow in EAST House, was one of a semi-regular series of educational talks hosted by the dorm, which preferentially houses students who minor in education or otherwise study or have experience in the field.
The realm of higher education has brought out some of the clearest divisions in the candidates' policies.
Kirst pointed in particular to the Obama administration's expansion of the Federal Pell Grant Program for higher education. The increase in student loan and grant funding, trumpeted by Obama during the debates, was enabled by the federal government forcing private banks out of the student loan market in favor of direct federal administration of loans.
Romney's position on student loans has changed over time, but Kirst, a Democrat, said he was "nervous about Romney giving it back to the banks."
Kirst also pointed to Obama's interest in cracking down on for-profit colleges – a sector Romney supports.
Hanushek, however, viewed the issue as unimportant – more an example of Obama's "explicitly anti-private" stance. "I don't think tax status is that big a deal," he said.
Kirst also cited Obama's prioritizing of funding for community colleges and immigrant education as distinctions between the candidates, though Hanushek questioned whether Romney was, in fact, opposed to the initiatives.
The exchange drove home a particular difficulty in comparing the candidates' policies: While Romney has a long track record of education reform in Massachusetts, his campaign has thus far been short on details as to what his education policies would look like as president.
On the other hand, Obama's education policies are better documented, but neither expert was particularly enamored of the administration's centerpiece program, Race to the Top. The policy set states against each other in a competition for $4.35 billion in K-12 education funding. Intended to spark changes in state and local education, the policy required states to meet highly specific standards in areas including teacher evaluation, data management and charter school availability.
"Race to the Top showed that, with a relatively small amount of money, you could change states' behavior," said Hanushek. "Although I don't know if I liked the changes very much."
Hanushek and Kirst agreed that the areas Race to the Top focused on are important, though both rankled at the detail-oriented manner in which the program was actually applied.
"I doubt that Romney would be as prescriptive as Obama," said Hanushek.
Searching for differences
Otherwise, Romney's proposals for K-12 education have largely been similar to Obama's. He has even praised elements of Race to the Top.
Republican-supported tax cuts could lead to budget shortfalls for schools, Kirst suggested. But proposed school funding between the two campaigns has been virtually identical.
The one exception is Romney's support for vouchers – a favorite of Republicans since the Reagan era. A school voucher program, which would take the $15 billion in Title I that funds low-income school districts and distribute it to parents to potentially offset the cost of private education, "is the sort of thing that drives the Democrats crazy," said Kirst.
But Kirst and Hanushek dismissed the issue as symbolic. Not only would it be unlikely to pass without a Republican supermajority, the amount of money involved is "kind of trivial," said Hanushek. "The $900 you give to a parent doesn't make a difference."
Romney has also pointed to teachers unions' support of Obama as another distinction. Both the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers have endorsed the Democratic candidate. Obama's relationship with the organizations, however, has at times been less than congenial.
"Before Obama won the nomination in 2008, he went to the NEA and was booed," said Hanushek. "They've subsequently retracted the booing. But that's because they don't have anywhere to go."
--Stanford News Service
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