President Obama visiting a Virginia school in 2010. (Olivier Douliery / European…)
It's hard to guess whether the topic of education will come up in this week's presidential debate, or any of the others. With the economy and the whole 47% debacle on everybody's mind, there hasn't been much talk about the public schools, even though they're at a critical juncture.
Of course, President Obama's views are pretty clear because he's been putting them into policy for the last few years. And in ways, those policies have been problematic. He's obviously a big believer in giving the federal government a major role in education, which has traditionally been left to state and local governments in this country.
There are policies he can't legally force on states, such as a common curriculum and rules about how they have to evaluate teachers. (He and Education Secretary Arne Duncan are insistent that scores on standardized tests have to be a "significant" part of teacher evaluations; it's not bad policy to include them in some way, but there's a real lack of research to show that they are absolutely key to rating teachers or will improve learning significantly.) So what the administration has done is twist states' arms by making funding via such programs as Race to the Top conditional on meeting its vision of what education should look like, or, more recently, allowing waivers to states from the more onerous and nonsensical elements of the No Child Left Behind Act if they go along.
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California hasn't climbed on the bandwagon fully enough to win federal money or leniency. The former doesn't matter much; the one-time grant California would have gotten from Race to the Top was less than 2% of what the state spends annually on schools. But the waivers could matter quite a bit. Of course, the courts have determined that California does have a law, and has had one for a long time, that requires some use of test scores in teacher evaluations. But that's not enough for the Obama "significance" policy; the state is being harmed by the Education Department's stance.
It's natural, of course, for the public to know less about Mitt Romney's education views, but what's problematic is that he has said such contradictory things that we know less than we should. He's voiced an interesting idea that children whose schools receive Title I money and other federal funding for disadvantaged students should be able to take that money to the school of their choice. That would give them a shot at moving to better schools outside their neighborhoods or even their school districts; many public schools would be happy to receive that extra funding. However, it also would mean a sharp change in direction on how such funds are allocated; only schools with a certain percentage of eligible children actually receive the money.
Romney veers off course when he pushes this concept into his liking for vouchers. He wants students to be able to take their federal money to private schools as well. One problem with this proposal is that there would be little chance for truly impoverished students to take advantage of it, since the federal entitlement doesn't cover a big portion of private school tuition. He also wants to bring back funding for Washington, D.C.'s voucher program, even though a study by the Department of Education found there was little if any difference in scores between private schools in the program and D.C.'s public schools. That's a surprising finding because parents who tend to take advantage of school choice tend to be more involved in their children's education, and because private schools don't have to keep students who aren't making the grade, though public schools do.
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But where Romney gets very confusing is on the role of the federal government in the schools. He has said repeatedly that the federal government has too strong a role in education under the Obama administration, but then has gone on to praise Duncan for insisting on tougher teacher evaluations and has said he would offer block grants to states that tie teacher evaluations to student performance. In what way is that different from what the Obama administration has done?
Romney previously was a supporter of the No Child Left Behind Act, which gave the federal government by far its biggest role in public schooling. More recently, he has said the law is too prescriptive in its remedies for low-performing schools (hard to argue with that) and that he would change the law so that schools must provide report cards on their progress, but so that it would have no actual accountability. This position lacks consistency; it's OK to use federal money to push for a prescriptive form of teacher evaluation, by Romney's reasoning, but not to create accountability for how well schools educate students.
Where Romney has been wildly inaccurate is in his contention that the Obama administration toadies to the teachers unions. For better or worse, the administration has pushed for policies that are vehemently opposed by the unions, including expansion of charter schools, uniform curriculum and revamped teacher evaluations.
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