School Reform: Why Romney and Obama Aren’t Talking About Education

When it comes to school reform, both candidates have a party-base problem

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Left: Jason Cohn / Reuters; Brendan Smialowski / AFP / Getty Images

Romney and Obama aren't talking about education reform's thorny questions. They aren't even talking about their own successes in this area.

According to a recent poll, 67 percent of registered voters in swing states said education was “extremely important” to them in this year’s election. Parents of high schoolers and college students are particularly worried, or they should be, that the interest rate on federally backed student loans is set to double in July, from 3.4 percent to 6.8 percent. Meanwhile, only 8 percent of low-income students even make it out of college by age 24. Business leaders agree America needs to do a better job educating its kids if we want to remain competitive globally.  Yet despite all that, President Obama and Mr. Romney aren’t talking about education’s hard questions. They aren’t even talking up their own successes. Why? Because education reform doesn’t fit well with the overall argument either candidate is making about why he should get to sit in the Oval Office next January.

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When it comes to education reform, both men have a party-base problem. Romney as governor championed charter schools and rigorous standards. He understood that improving our education system, especially our elementary and secondary schools, is a national issue crucial to our economic growth. He was regarded as a moderate — he even praised No Child Left Behind.

Now his campaign website talks about education as a global competitiveness strategy but concludes that the solution is to leave school improvement to states. As the presumptive nominee of a party that is increasingly allergic to a robust federal role in most areas of domestic policy, Romney talks a good game about national problems but is unable to propose actually using national policies or strategies to help solve them.  The former moderate from Massachusetts now finds himself to the political right of President George W. Bush on education.

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Obama has his own minefield to walk through. He has compiled an impressive record on education, including an unprecedented focus on turning around low-performing schools, a federal grant competition that sparked the biggest wave of state education policy change ever, and an emphasis on tough issues like teacher evaluation and data that will pay dividends far into the future. Yet a recent mailer from his campaign has a laundry list of administration accomplishments that included just one entry on education: his efforts to make student loans more efficient and increase Pell Grants for college students.

Why so little when he’s done a lot? Much of what President Obama has pushed through on education antagonizes key interest groups in his party, especially the powerful teachers unions. So while the President often talks about economic fairness and obstacles to the American Dream — he called it the “defining issue of our time” in this year’s State of the Union — he can’t talk forthrightly about one of the major barriers to achieving that dream: lousy public schools that doom too many kids to low-income jobs or unemployment.  His party’s base is fine with calling out Big Oil for its problems but much less comfortable with an honest conversation about Big Education.

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As usual the media isn’t forcing the conversation either. You’re more likely to hear one of the candidates asked about the taste or proper treatment of dogs than about what they’re going to do to address the problems facing our schools — and by extension our country.  There were hardly any questions about education during the umpteen Republican presidential debates. And when the College Board and News Corp. hosted a forum about education for the Republican candidates last year in New York City, Mitt Romney skipped it, and of the four contenders who participated, two did so by satellite. Pretty much tells you what they think of the 67 percent’s wishes to hear more about education. It’s time to change that.