Chicago teachers rally outside school district headquarters last month… (Sitthixay Ditthavong /…)
When teachers walked off the job in Chicago last month, they were pushing back largely against education priorities pursued by the Obama administration: revamped teacher evaluations, more charter schools and diminished job security for school employees.
These issues are also high on the education agenda of Republican challenger Mitt Romney.
When it comes to fundamental education issues, in fact, the presidential candidates have similar positions:
Both support an overhaul in how teachers are evaluated, calling for students' standardized test scores as one measure of teachers' effectiveness.
Both back the growth of publicly funded charter schools, most of which are non-union and operate independently of school district control.
Both want to make it more difficult for instructors to earn and retain tenure, in an effort to more easily dismiss teachers. And when budget crises force districts to shed teachers, the two candidates want to end layoffs that are based on seniority and instead dismiss low-performing teachers first.
Both also support paying more to effective teachers, a move that unions mostly decry as unsuccessful and divisive.
"There's not much difference between the two candidates on education," said author Paul Tough, who has written about trends in school reform. Many of those proposals that "started as Republican ideas have become accepted Democratic ideas now. There is now a kind of orthodoxy, and it is surprising how much it's been embraced by the Obama administration."
Broadly speaking, the candidates reflect national sentiment, according to an annual poll released in September by "Education Next," a research journal published by the Hoover Institution at Stanford. It found wide support for using test scores to hold teachers accountable, declining faith in teacher unions and a consonance among independent voters — a crucial bloc — on policies common to Romney and Obama.
The polling, though independent, was paid for by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which has funded influential efforts to advance much of the policy agenda that Obama and Romney share.
In a highly unusual move — but one that reflects their similarities — Romney offered measured praise of Obama's education secretary, Arne Duncan, in last week's presidential debate. And the Republican candidate has not dismissed outright the idea that Duncan could stay on in a Romney administration. He told NBC News recently that Duncan "has made a difference," suggesting that he was, in effect, standing up to unions.
In pressing for his education policies, President Obama has provoked strong opposition from many union activists nationwide. They argue that the administration's chosen reforms are unproven at best, are unfair to teachers and put too much emphasis on standardized testing.
To persuade states to go along with reforms favored by the administration, Obama and Duncan used a powerful tool: money. At a time when states were facing budget crises, the administration set up competitive grant programs.
School improvement funds, for example, required specific actions at struggling campuses. Separately, Race to the Top rewarded states for adopting particular policies, including new teacher evaluation systems. Most states complied, to varying degrees, whether they received grants or not.
States also adopted policies in exchange for relief from then-President George W. Bush's signature education initiative, No Child Left Behind. Under that law, schools not on track to have all students academically proficient by 2014 have been labeled failures and faced serious sanctions.
"The benchmark we've used in my administration," Obama said in a recent interview with NBC News, "is to say, 'We're going to give more money to those schools that are serious about reform, but we're not going to let people make excuses and suggest that it's just a money problem.' "
A report last month from the conservative, Washington, D.C.-based American Enterprise Institute praised Obama for being able to force changes on unions without them mobilizing effectively against him.
The unions aren't abandoning the incumbent, in large part because he came through for teachers in a way that Romney has criticized.
Obama and congressional Democrats pushed through nearly $100 billion in one-time K-12 funding, including more than $50 billion in economic-stimulus dollars and $25 billion to educate low-income students and disabled students. Another $10 billion was added for a fund designated to save education jobs.
Those efforts preserved an estimated 160,000 education jobs, according to the National School Boards Assn. The Obama administration puts the figure at nearly three times higher.
The largesse came at the cost of adding to the federal deficit. Republican critics have charged that the funding maintained or expanded ineffective, often bloated education bureaucracies and that the one-time dollars postponed necessary cutbacks.