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For Romney, beating Obama on education could be tricky

May 28, 2012|By Mitchell Landsberg | This post has been corrected, as indicated below.
(Jared Soares/Getty Images )

Herman Cain had 9-9-9. Lately, Mitt Romney is all about E-E-E.

As in, the economy, energy and -- new this week -- education.

Romney rolled out his education plan at a speech in Washington last week, and followed up with a visit to a charter school in West Philadelphia. Now, both the Associated Press and Education Week are taking him to task for what they deem to be misstatements about President Obama’s education record.

Fair?

Along with touting his own education record as governor of Massachusetts, the presumptive Republican nominee attacked Obama for, among other things, being a tool of the teachers unions.

Not everyone is willing to give Romney credit, but there's no question that Massachusetts schools are near the top nationally – in student achievement and in per-pupil spending. But Romney is catching heat over his comment that Obama "has been unable to stand up to union bosses."

In fact, Obama and his education secretary, Arne Duncan, have clashed repeatedly with teachers unions over the administration's support for charter schools, merit pay and standardized testing. And Obama has won praise from a number of Republicans for pursuing an education agenda that, in some significant ways, builds on the policies of former PresidentGeorge W. Bush.

Chris Christie, the Republican governor of New Jersey, said last yearon "Face the Nation" that Obama "has shown some real courage" on education, "especially for a Democrat who's been dependent upon the teachers union nationally for political support."

"In general," he said, "I think the president's been very strong on this, and that's why you see Republicans agreeing with him."

Republican Gov. Mitch Daniels of Indiana has also praised Obama – with reservations – for standing up to teachers unions, saying it is part of a "tectonic shift" on education policy in the country.

Even Romney had this to say last year when asked by People magazine to describe some of Obama's strengths: "Some of his education initiatives – merit pay for the best teachers and school choice – have been positive." Those, of course, are policies that are anathema to teachers unions.

None of this is to say that Obama doesn't enjoy support from teachers unions, or that Republicans endorse everything he's done on education. Far from it.

The National Education Assn., the nation's largest teachers union, took the unusual step of endorsing Obama last July, long before anyone knew who his Republican challenger would be. And Romney isn't alone among Republicans in castigating Obama for pulling the plug on a school voucher program  , D.C., among other policies.

Education wonk Rick Hess of the conservative American Enterprise Institute suggests in his blog that Romney got it half right.

"The president has done enough right to win plaudits from the likes of the Wall Street Journal, Washington Post and conservative New York Times columnist David Brooks," Hess wrote. "And Romney is going to have trouble beating him on education. Yet Obama's missteps are serious enough that explaining them – and how a Romney administration would correct them – would illuminate a picture of smarter, more humble domestic leadership."

[For the Record, 9:57 a.m. PST  May 28: An earlier version of this post said Mitch Daniels is the governor of Illinois. The post has since been updated to reflect his position as the governor of Indiana.]

mitchell.landsberg@latimes.com

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