Perry out on his own against Obama education program

at 02:36 PM ET, 09/28/2011

It was one of Mitt Romney’s worst moments, a low point in an otherwise strong debating streak. Last Thursday, Texas Gov. Rick Perry accused the former Massachusetts governor of supporting the Obama administration’s “Race to the Top” educational competition.

Flummoxed, Romney denied supporting the program, which led to a Perry web ad attacking him as a flip-flopper for saying earlier in the week that “Race to the Top” (RTT) makes sense.

But the Perry ad used the debate clip in a misleading way; at the debate, Romney said RTT had some positives, but should be brought down to the state level.

But Perry’s position against the program— which encourages education reforms by having states compete for federal grant money — is actually far more unusual than Romney’s. In fact, many Republican governors and fierce Obama opponents support the federal program and have fought hard to receive its benefits.

Tennessee, hardly a blue state, was one of the first states to win a RTT grant. Georgia and North Carolina were both winners in Round 2. Florida’s Rick Scott actually asked Republicans in the state legislature to accept some previously rejected health-care funding in order to qualify for the competition. According to a 2010 poll, 67 percent of people in the state back the program.

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush supports the program, as did former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty while in office. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) praised it in a previous debate — something Perry apparently missed when he said only “one person” on stage backed the contest.

“I liked very much the fact that it talked about charter schools," Gingrich said at a previous debate. “It's the one place I found to agree with President Obama.”

Only four states opted out of the “Race to the Top” competition — Alaska, North Dakota, Texas and Vermont. Perry was the only governor to turn it into a high-profile fight.

While other states merely declined to participate, Perry declared that Texas "must not surrender control to the federal bureaucracy" and claimed in an op-ed the Obama adminstration "put a target on the backs of Texas leaders, taxpayers and employers."

Obama administration officials have responded in kind; Education Secretary Arne Duncan said recently that he feels "very. very badly for the children" who attend public school in Texas.

In fact, Perry has consistently fought the Obama administration on education even when most Republicans embraced the president’s policies.

Even now, it’s not impossible for Republican candidates to give the president credit where its due. Perry has repeatedly praised Obama for the capture of Osama bin Laden.

When Duncan was nominated as education secretary, Senate Republicans were falling all over themselves to praise him.

Other parts of Obama’sducation policy remain controversial; the administration itself considers No Child Left Behind standards dysfunctional and is liberating states from the law with waivers.

And there’s undoubtedly debate among education experts and state officials over the RTT competition — whether the money at stake is worth the expenses involved in qualifying for the contest, whether the focus on test scores and charter schools is warranted. But those debates have little to do with partisanship.

Some Senate Republicans have started to question RTT and other grant competitions as reaching too far into state affairs. So maybe the GOP is trending Perry’s way. But praising RTT is hardly Republican poison. For Romney, appearing wishy-washy is likely far worse.

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