Education and the presidential election

obamaThe presidential election is less than a month away, and the candidates are gearing up for the final push.  As most observers expected, the economy has dominated much of the political discourse.  But other topics have crept into the campaigns, including education.

Last week’s first presidential debate focused on domestic policy issues, and moderator Jim Lehrer of PBS opened the session by stating that it would be divided into six segments, with, “three on the economy and one each on health care, the role of government, and governing,” according to Mr. Lehrer (you can read a transcript or watch a video of the debate if you missed it).  Lehrer did ask one question about education: “Does the federal government have a responsibility to improve the quality of public education in America?”

Governor Romney’s response to this question was one of the few times where he said that his views were aligned with any policies of the Obama administration, stating that he agreed with Secretary of Eduromneycation Arne Duncan’s Race to the Top program.  President Obama, not surprisingly, also touted the Race to the Top program, as well as other initiatives his Department of Education and administration had put into place, including steps to try to control the growth in tuition prices across the country.

Governor Romney did disagree with President Obama in one important area.  He stated that he would take funds from two federal programs – Title I money set aside in the Elementary and Secondary Education Act and provided directly to school districts that serve large numbers of low-income students, and funds from the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act – and instead use the money for a voucher program:

“ So all federal funds, instead of going to the — to the state or to the school district, I’d have go — if you will, follow the child and let the parent and the child decide where to send their — their — their student.”

This would be a substantial change to federal policy, and would have a large impact on school districts and the students who attend them.  It is unclear how much Congressional support, no matter who controls the House and Senate after the election, there would be for a major shifting of federal aid in this fashion.

I found it interesting that both candidates spoke about education in other parts of their remarks as well, not only in responding to Mr. Lehrer’s specific question.  President Obama used the word “education” 12 times in his responses, and Governor Romney eight times.  I do not expect that education will receive all that much attention in the remaining month of the race, but I think we will hear the candidates talk about it on occasion.  They both know that this is an issue that is of prime importance to many voters, and those voters want to know what the next administration will be doing to try to improve the quality of schooling in the country, no matter whether that administration will be four more years under President Obama, or a new administration under Governor Romney.

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