Obama policies working; Romney ideas need vetting


We know what President Barack Obama’s educational policy would be — Race to the Top on steroids.

The bigger question: Which Mitt Romney would emerge if he were elected president? Would it be the Mitt Romney who once wanted to abolish the Department of Education? Or the Mitt Romney who acknowledged in his debate with Obama on Wednesday night that there were aspects of Obama’s educational policy that even he liked?

As an issue, education has been subsumed by the economy, the deficit and concern over hot spots around the world, especially in Iran and Syria. But education may be more important than any of those over the long term. The American way of education is failing. Kids in the United States are not keeping up with their peers around the world.

Obama and his education secretary, Arne Duncan, deserve credit for designing federal incentives to encourage smarter policy. The Race to the Top program did that by channeling more than $4 billion of grants to states if they could meet certain benchmarks (it was Obama’s answer to the failures of the Bush-era No Child Left Behind law).

In doing so, Obama showed that he wasn’t afraid to challenge the entrenched power of teachers unions, which for years fought change to preserve their own power. So far, 46 states have taken advantage of Race to the Top.

Obama also has been a strong supporter of charter schools but has never supported the voucher idea.

Romney is skeptical of federal mandates, yet even Romney acknowledges that at least some of the ideas in Race to the Top were good.

The main difference between the two: Romney is intent on expanding school choice by allowing federal funds to follow special needs and low-income students to whatever school they choose.

OBAMA’S PLAN

In addition to spurring innovation nationwide, Obama saved teachers’ jobs. The stimulus bill that the president pushed for saved or created about 250,000 of them.

Obama has enthusiastically supported the Common Core State Standards, which are standardizing what is expected of students nationwide. That’s a very good thing. He also expanded Head Start and Early Head Start to reach an additional 64,000 children and loosened the mandates of No Child Left Behind.

In a second term, Obama would channel federal dollars to states with the best ideas for recruiting math and science teachers. His goal: 100,000 new teachers nationwide.

And in an initiative modeled on Race to the Top, he would provide states with incentives to create reforms that hold down tuition and ensure stable funding for universities. He would punish laggards by reducing federal funding. He also wants to encourage the use of technology.

To keep college affordable, the president backed allowing students who have already taken out student loans the ability to consolidate and lower their interest rates. The government will make those loans directly to the students to keep rates lower. The “Pay As You Earn” program caps monthly federal student loan repayment at 10% of monthly discretionary income, meaning that a student can choose the college they want based on their career path instead of the price of tuition.

Obama also doubled funding for Pell grants to make school more affordable for students in need.

Finally, he wants to encourage partnerships between businesses and community colleges so that more workers can be trained for the jobs that are available.

ROMNEY’S PLAN

Romney is best viewed through the prism of Massachusetts, where he was governor. He boasts that the state had the highest-ranked schools in the country during that time.

Romney, like Obama, supports charter schools, better evaluation of teachers and some form of pay for performance. He also would promote the use of vouchers federally. But his near-embrace of the House Republican budget should cause grave concern for those worried about budget cuts to education programs.

As governor, Romney supported additional testing, including a high school exit exam. He vetoed a bill that would have put a moratorium on the opening of new charter schools. He supported merit pay.

Romney supports the parts of No Child Left Behind that require testing and transparency but is skeptical of the law’s punitive remedies. He wants to create a block grant for states that create programs to improve the quality of teachers. He has noted that while U.S. schools lead the world in spending, they lag it on virtually every measure of results. It’s a great point.

The governor wants to do away with caps on charter and virtual schools and spend more on charter schools.

But it’s his plan to channel billions of federal dollars into vouchers that is most controversial. Low-income and special needs students could use them to attend any public or private school they desire, as long as state law permits it. The vouchers also could be used for tutoring or online learning.

The opportunities should be reserved for the needy and not for those who already can afford private school tuition. And there must be strict accountability to protect families from poor schools.

On higher education, Romney believes that the nation’s college debt problem is compounded by the fact that college graduates cannot find work in their field of study. If elected, Romney said he would reshape Obama’s higher education policy initiatives and overhaul the federal student loan program.

OUR VIEW

Obama’s ideas are working. His policies have spurred a healthy change in districts across the country. But Romney and Obama aren’t that far apart on education policy, and Romney’s ideas on vouchers are worthy of a fuller discussion. We still believe that poor kids deserve as much choice as their wealthy counterparts.