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Presidential Surrogates Debate Education Policy at Teachers College

By Omar Lopez, DFER Policy Analyst

Call it the rumble in the education jungle.

Columbia University’s Teachers College hosted a debate on October 15 between Jon Schnur, Education Advisor to the Obama Presidential Campaign, and Phil Handy, Higher Education Co-Chair of Governor Romney’s Education Policy Advisory Group. [See the video here.] DFER was represented both in person and online by Policy Analyst Omar Lopez (live Tweeting @policywhisperer).

There were surprising revelations in the 90-minute debate by both representatives, particularly by Governor Romney’s representative. It was a field day for education policy wonks around the country who have been looking forward to hearing details about each candidate’s policy positions.

Here are some of the biggest hits:

Obama Representative Jon Schnur

Common Core - President Obama supports the implementation and funding of these standards

States should have high college and career-ready standards, which could be, though are not limited to, the Common Core standards. The Common Core has been adopted by 46 states, though there is a fear that bi-partisan support might suffer if Obama’s support is seen as a politicization of the issue.

NCLB Waivers - The President will continue to provide flexibility for states from No Child Left Behind through the use of waivers

Until the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (now known as No Child Left behind) is reauthorized, the President will continue to support waivers as a tool to give states flexibility.

Federal Role - The Federal government should influence states to promote desired policies

Schnur responded to Handy’s view on the role of the Federal government, i.e., that it should primarily serve as a statistician, but clearly saw it as a passé conversation topic that wouldn’t bear much fruit. Romney has, at various times, proposed eliminating the Department of Education, downsizing it, or consolidating it with other agencies. Republicans and Democrats would simply not see eye-to-eye in this issue, so he chose to agree to disagree.

Funding - The Federal government should use funds to supplement state spending

With Race to the Top and other initiatives, President Obama catalyzed states and school districts to enact bold, student-centered reforms. His first term clearly identified the money-for-policy-changes approach as an effective way of leveraging federal funds. This is a policy he will continue to pursue if re-elected.

Standards - States should use subgroup-specific standards

President Obama supports having different standards for subgroups (race, socio-economic status, disability, etc.), as long as the groups were making significant gains toward high academic standards every year. Obama sees this as the more realistic approach in that it embraces ambitious standards but sets attainable goals.

Higher Education - President Obama would continue to support policies that supplement tuition for students in financial need and forgive student debt for those going into public service

This is consistent with his policy positions in the first term and signals that he looks to continue it during a second term.

Zinger of the Night - When Phil Handy referred to Romney’s tenure as governor as evidence of his effectiveness on the issue, Schnur said:

“I would vote for Romney as governor, not president.”

Romney Representative Phil Handy

Common Core - Governor Romney supports the idea of the Common Core, though he does not agree that the federal government should fund it

Language is important when listening to Governor Romney (see the funding section below), and the Common Core is a good example. Governor Romney embraced the Common Core in primary debates, but conveniently left out the little detail that he would not fund the assessments needed to implement it. Handy provided those details during the debate.

NCLB Waivers - For the first time, the Romney camp has identified its opposition to Obama’s waivers

Previously mum on the issue, Handy said that Governor Romney contested the use of waivers because it was a tool for the federal government to control state education policies. Under a Romney administration, states would be left to their own devices. He described the waivers as “prescriptive,” which was surprising considering the fact that he supports reauthorizing No Child Left Behind in its current form, a move that most would call significantly more prescriptive.

Federal Role - The Federal government should only be involved in data collection and creating an environment for school choice

Before President George W. Bush, the Republican position on education was centered on returning education policy power to states. President Bush was more proactive and he successfully advanced, working hand in hand with key Democrats, groundbreaking education reform efforts. Now that Democrats, under the leadership of President Obama, have become more supportive of measures such as standardized testing and teacher evaluations, Governor Romney’s team has started taking cues from anti-government tea-partiers and is adhering more closely to a 1960’s era states’ rights doctrine.

Funding - The Federal government should not use funds to supplement state spending

Handy repeated Governor Romney’s declaration from the first debate that assured voters he would not cut education spending. He would not raise it; he would just leave it where it is. It’s hard to see how Romney could keep his word. His plan to return management of student loans to banks, for example, would cost as much as $60 billion over ten years. This $60 billion might still count as education spending, but it is spending to benefit banks that would come at a great cost to college students and their families.

Standards - States should use one standard for all students

Romney’s camp believes that standards should be the same for students, irrespective of subgroup (race, socio-economic status, disability, etc.). Described as what President George W. Bush called “the soft bigotry of low expectations,” having the same standard goals for all students is seen by Romney as the equitable perspective. See above on Obama's take. But Handy has a point here, as outcry from across the political spectrum over federal approval of very low expectations for minority students in Virginia led the U.S. Department of Education to demand revisions to Virginia’s waiver plan.

Higher Education - Romney’s camp distanced itself from using federal funds to supplement tuition as well as forgiving debt for public workers

For the first time, Romney’s camp described debt forgiveness for teachers and other students entering public service as “the next big entitlement program.”

Fashion Item of the Night - Handy sported bright orange socks that stole the show

Some believed that the bright socks were a ploy to distract audiences from his policy positions. After having heard his policy positions, I’m inclined to agree.

Omar Lopez has been in the struggle to reform the public education system since being part of the first graduating class of Beginning with Children Charter School in Brooklyn, New York. Before joining DFER his background was in teaching English Language Arts in New York City Public Schools at the 5th, 9th and 11th grade level. Read more about Omar here.