Gingrich, Romney, Obama — education triplets

Jay Mathews
Columnist December 21, 2011

The battle for the White House 2012 has little to do with selecting an education president. That issue is almost never mentioned on the campaign trail. Some candidates don’t even bother to include it on their Web sites.

If school policy were a prime issue and we judged the three principal contenders of the moment — former House speaker Newt Gingrich, President Obama and former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney — on that basis, the race would be dull three-way tie.

Jay Mathews is an education columnist and blogger for the Washington Post, his employer for 40 years. View Archive

The president and his two most prominent Republican challengers each have some unique ideas for schools, but by and large they support the test-driven, school-rating, pro-charter-school policy that has ruled the United States for more than a decade, no matter which party controlled the presidency or Congress.

That depresses the many educators and parents who yearn for schools that don’t rate students and teachers on standardized multiple-choice tests, that emphasize improving students’ home lives more than increasing the number of charter schools and that are less eager to follow the lead of billionaire reformers.

In turn, the general agreement over education policy at the highest levels of both parties pleases the many educators and parents who think using standardized tests, weeding out weak teachers and giving parents more choices will help our schools break out of decades of apathy, low expectations and illogical policies.

Most U.S. politicians appear to have embraced the George W. Bush/Barack Obama commitment to evaluating schools by test scores, because the anti-test argument doesn’t work with voters. The only major contender for the presidency who sharply attacked the testing regime, Howard Dean, failed to win the Democratic Party nomination, although the major teacher unions embraced his message.

Many Americans are thrilled at the prospect of Obama and Gingrich — both unusually articulate campaigners — debating the big issues in a general election. If that happens, we won’t be hearing much about schools. The two men are in many ways education soul-mates. The charter school portion of Gingrich’s “21st Century Learning System” is very close to the president’s views, including their mutual enthusiasm for removing all caps on charter growth.

They differ on one thing: letting parents use tax dollars to pay private school tuition, sometimes called the voucher issue. Gingrich and his party are for vouchers. Obama and his party are against them. This has been the sole education issue on which each party could rile up its base to strike back at the other, but it has not proved to work very well for either and is rarely mentioned.

Romney’s education platform is less clear than Gingrich’s. I couldn’t find an education section on Romney’s campaign Web site. But Internet compilations of the former governor’s views show he is pretty close to the pro-test, pro-charter mainstream. He also emphasizes teaching family values and economics in schools and more college scholarships for students who do well in high school.

Gingrich wishes to shrink the U.S. Department of Education so that it handles only the collection of data and research and identifying reforms that the states might find effective. He also supports innovations such as work-study programs that allow college students to graduate debt-free and online schools available to all students from kindergarten on.

Little of this gets noticed in the campaign to select the Republican nominee. All of the candidates have intriguing ideas about how to fix our schools, but the debate moderators and voters in the streets prefer to hear about their plans for jobs, the budget, health care and social security.

That is not necessarily a bad thing. Most voters say they want bipartisan approaches to issues. That is more or less what we are getting in education. Our discussions of schools are often unique in their depth and erudition. More about that Monday.

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