Obama and Romney on the issues: Education

Video: Listen to President Obama and Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney as they lay out their visions on how to educate America’s young people.

The Post is taking a comprehensive look at the positions of President Obama and Mitt Romney on several key issues. For an interactive experience including polling, quotes and the ability to choose which candidate better represents your views, visit the Post’s Issue Engine.

President Obama and Mitt Romney agree that improving schools and providing more training is one of the keys to restoring America’s economic prowess. But their views diverge over what’s holding the country back. Obama says it’s inadequate investment. Romney says it’s the teachers unions and cumbersome bureaucracy.

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In their basic stump speeches, both Romney and Obama include education among their five-point plans to turn around the economy. Obama spends more time talking about Pell grants and student assistance because he’s eager to fire up enthusiasm among young voters, who were a key to his victory four years ago. Romney emphasizes conservative themes of school choice to fire up his base.

But the issue has rarely been joined directly in a full-fledged debate — either between the candidates or inside their parties. Unlike some big-city mayors, like Chicago’s Rahm Emanuel and Los Angeles’s Antonio Villaraigosa, Obama has not been pushed hard on the question of teachers unions. Romney has not talked much about his differences with former President George W. Bush, who advocated a bigger federal role in education than most conservatives favor.

One reason the debate hasn’t been joined may be because neither candidate believes there is much to gain politically. When the Post and ABC News asked people to cite the issues that would be most important in deciding their vote, just one percent named education.

— Dan Balz

Here are Obama and Romney’s positions on education, broken down by subject:

VOUCHERS

OBAMA

President Obama is opposed to vouchers, or using public tax money to pay tuition at private schools. He points to studies that show that children attending private schools with vouchers did not perform better academically than their peers in public schools. His administration has said that giving tax money to private schools drains resources from public schools.

Obama butted heads with Congress this year over one specific voucher program: the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship.

Congress created the program in 2004 to help low-income students in the District attend private schools. A 2010 federal study found they had a higher graduation rate than students who applied for vouchers but didn’t receive them, although there was no significant difference in academic achievement.

In his proposed budget for fiscal 2013, Obama wanted to maintain level funding of $17 million for the D.C. voucher program while House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) and Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.), two voucher champions, wanted to expand it. After they protested, the Obama administration agreed to slightly increase funding for the program to raise the number of participating students from 1,615 to 1,700.

ROMNEY

Mitt Romney supports the use of tax money to pay for tuition at private schools, including parochial schools. He has endorsed voucher programs that have recently taken root in several states, including Indiana and Louisiana, and said he would support such programs wherever they are allowed by state law.

Romney also wants to take federal tax money sent to public schools to help educate poor and disabled children and instead reroute that money, allowing it to follow the students to private schools if they choose to attend them.

Under Romney’s plan, money for the vouchers would come from two federal programs: Title 1, for economically disadvantaged students, and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, for students with special needs. The money for both programs, which was distributed to states and school districts according to federal formulas, totaled about $27 billion in the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30 .

Romney said he wants to expand the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship, the only federal program that funds vouchers for private schools, to “make it a national showcase.” He has not said how much he intends to expand it, or how he would pay for that expansion.

NO CHILD LEFT BEHIND

OBAMA

President Obama supports the accountability aspects of No Child Left Behind — namely, the requirement that states test children; break down the scores by racial group, income and disabilities; and make those scores public. But he has said that the law is too prescriptive and punitive, and that it resulted in states watering down their academic standards to make it appear that students were performing better than they were. Obama said he wants to hold states to high standards but thinks they should be allowed to decide how they will meet those standards. But when it comes to the worst schools in the country — the bottom 5 percent — the president wants states to adopt one of four federal methods to turn them around.

ROMNEY

Mitt Romney has said he supports aspects of No Child Left Behind, the 2002 federal education law crafted by President George W. Bush with bipartisan support in Congress.

During a 2007 debate, Romney pointed to the law as an example where he differs with the Republican base, which has soured on the measure and has increasingly been calling for a smaller federal role in K-12 education.

In the current campaign, Romney has said he supports the emphasis on testing and accountability created by the legislation but he thinks states should have more autonomy when it comes to educating children. He has not offered a framework to replace the law, which is five years overdue for reauthorization by Congress.

Romney has said there is a limited role for the federal government to play in K-12 education, namely providing funding for the education of poor and disabled students.

HIGHER EDUCATION

OBAMA

President Obama engineered an overhaul of the student loan industry in 2010, teaming up with Democrats in Congress to end a program that provided subsidies to banks and other institutions that issued government-backed loans to college students.

Cutting out the middleman in federal student loans saved an estimated $61 billion over 10 years. The change expanded the government’s direct lending to students.

About $36 billion of the savings from that switch was channeled into federal Pell grants for needy students. This year, students are eligible for awards of up to $5,550 apiece. Annual Pell grant funding has grown from $16 billion when Obama took office to $41 billion.

Obama also pushed this year to preserve a key federal student loan interest rate at 3.4 percent. The rate had been scheduled to double, an increase the president said would hurt students and parents. Mitt Romney agreed with the president. Congress voted in June to avert a higher rate.

As a regulator, Obama has sought to tighten federal oversight of for-profit colleges, contending that too many students graduate from such schools with debt they can’t repay. The Education Department issued rules in 2011 that would deny federal aid to vocational programs that don’t meet certain loan repayment and debt-related tests for whether their graduates had obtained “gainful employment.” But this year a federal judge struck down a key portion of the rules after the for-profit college industry sued to block them.

ROMNEY

Mitt Romney contends that “a flood of federal dollars” is driving up the cost of higher education. He pledges, in an education white paper, that he would not “write a blank check to universities to reward their tuition increases.”

Romney says federal Pell grants should be refocused on students who most need them. That implies a restructuring of a need-based program that is a cornerstone of financial aid for colleges nationwide. However, advisers say the candidate would not seek to reduce the maximum Pell grant award of $5,550 a year.

The Republican would reevaluate President Obama’s 2010 student loan overhaul that expanded direct government lending and cut private lenders out of the federal loan market. Romney contends that the private sector is better equipped than the government to help ensure that students are clearly informed about their obligations when they apply for loans.

In regulation, Romney would scrap the Obama administration’s “gainful employment “ rules that targeted for-profit colleges.

In general, he would seek to ease regulation of higher education in an effort to promote innovation in areas such as online learning.

Some of Romney’s positions reflect bipartisan consensus on higher education. Like Obama, he supported congressional action last summer to extend a 3.4 percent rate on federal student loans. He also strongly supports federal funding of research at universities.

WHAT THE CANDIDATES HAVE DONE ON EDUCATION

OBAMA’S RECORD

President Obama has sparked a major overhaul of K-12 education nationwide. He did it through two avenues: by giving waivers to states clamoring to be exempted from No Child Left Behind, a 2002 federal education law that imposed severe penalties on schools that don’t meet its requirements, and by using $5 billion in stimulus money to create Race to the Top, a series of national contests among the states.

To receive a waiver for No Child Left Behind or to compete for a Race to the Top grant, states had to adopt Obama’s favored educational policies. As a result, dozens of states are using new teacher evaluations based in part on student test scores, expanding public charter schools and adopting common academic standards so that a third-grader in Mississippi learns the same skills as a third-grader in Massachusetts. Forty-five states and the District of Columbia are implementing these new standards. And 33 states have changed 100 laws or policies to compete in Race to the Top, Education Secretary Arne Duncan said.

ROMNEY’S RECORD

While Mitt Romney was governor of Massachusetts from 2003 to 2007, fourth- and eighth-graders became the first in the country on national exams that measure math and reading skills. The state was already on a pathway to that point before his election and remains top-ranked, thanks largely to a 1993 state education overhaul that poured $2 billion into schools, created new curriculum standards, gave principals more autonomy and provided more professional training for teachers.

Romney persuaded the Massachusetts school board to add science to the subjects that are tested. And he defended the state requirement that high school seniors pass an exit exam to graduate, a rule some mayors challenged.

As governor, Romney created a scholarship program for top-performing high school students that covers tuition at state colleges. Still, the John and Abigail Adams Scholarships do not pay for fees, which can amount to more than 80 percent of college costs at some campuses.

As a Republican governor in a state with a legislature controlled by Democrats, Romney had trouble pushing through other education reforms. He tried to offer merit pay for teachers and wanted to link their performance to student test scores, two proposals that fell flat. Romney also wanted to ban bilingual education, another idea that never gained traction. And he wanted to require parents in the lowest-performing districts to attend parenting classes to enroll their children in full-day kindergarten, a proposal that never became law.

 
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