The party conventions are over; President Obama and Governor Romney are neck and neck in the polls. As we head toward November 6th it’s a good time to ask what each candidate is likely to do in the next four years to address the complex, multilayered, and politically fraught crisis in American education. The stakes are high because as the 21st century unfolds our clunky and often rusty K20 education system is running out of time and money. How do President Obama and Governor Romney propose to fix our damaged public schools, keep higher education affordable, and ensure that American students will succeed in the global marketplace?
On some issues the candidates have similar views such as requiring teachers to be more accountable for their performance and holding colleges and schools of education responsible for teacher effectiveness. Both favor more charter schools. Both champion innovation and accountability. Both link educational renewal to economic growth. As Jay Mathews of the Washington Post has suggested, Barack Obama and Mitt Romney appear to be “education policy twins.”
But when we look a little closer we discover their fundamental reform DNA is not the same — superficial consensus disguises some deeper disagreements. President Obama and Governor Romney are driven by dramatically differing assumptions about the nature of change, the nature of markets, and the nature of public life.
Obama believes that smart government can and ought to be the driver of change. He is convinced that his signature programs such as Race to the Top, support of state-led Common Core standards, increased investments in community colleges, expanded student aid, and retaining teachers with federal funds will result in better educational opportunities for underserved students. In recent campaign stops the President has argued for smaller class sizes as a way of emphasizing the importance of federal funds to states and districts. While not embracing teachers unions he refrains from attacking them. On balance, the President and his Secretary of Education Arne Duncan are taking a cautious approach before proclaiming victory for their reform strategies while at the same time finding financial incentives to encourage compliance with federal reform guidelines.
Romney and the Republicans are willing to bet a great deal more on market innovation and less on government. The Republican Party Platform quotes U.S. Senator and former U.S. Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander, “… there is a difference between national concern, which education is, and a federal government solution driven from Washington.” Romney fears too much federal oversight results in stifling innovation. He has characterized the teachers unions as obstructionist.
The Governor believes markets create opportunities. He favors allowing all low-income and special needs students to choose the school they attend, supporting successful charter school management organizations, expanding the DC Opportunity Scholarship Program and awarding block grants to states which compensate teachers on a performance basis. His support of for-profit colleges and universities stands in contrast the Obama administration’s efforts to hold for-profits accountable for graduation rates and the gainful employment of their graduates.
President Obama and Governor Romney are not really educational twins after all; they stand for two different approaches to change. The President favors a government guided path forward and the Governor favors a market guided path forward.
If these differences were merely semantic or incidental they might not be worth a great deal of discussion; after all, the education world is awash in rhetoric. But, in fact, the candidates’ differences underscore one of the most contentious and divisive tensions in American life today: How can individual autonomy be reconciled with community responsibility?
Education isn’t just about acquiring techniques and skills; it’s about who we are as a people and what we most fundamentally believe. The struggle for educational answers goes deeper than specific policies; it is a cultural struggle — the outcome of which will determine the nature of public life for a very long time.
Which of these two paths is most likely to lead to an American education system that is productive, innovative and just? How will the reforms of either candidate deal with issues such as the effect of childhood poverty on learning? When children are hungry, learning is hard, very hard. How will their policies help lift American classrooms into the 21st century? Is there a third way that builds on partnership and is generous enough to allow grassroots solutions to educational dilemmas? Today, upward economic and social mobility has virtually come to a halt — how will the educational reform policies and principles of the candidates restart the American Dream?
It is often said that every election is the most important. Perhaps much of this is political jargon, but for the millions of American children who attend underperforming and often dangerous schools, for the millions of high school graduates who can’t afford college and for the millions of us who are counting on this generation to keep us prosperous and safe, perhaps this election really is historical.