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Candidates Square Off on Education: How Much Chicken in Every Pot?

A timely issue that is finally worth the debate

by Jeanne Allen
October 3, 2012

Who knew education would come up repeatedly tonite?

Romney: After the president opened the debate about his jobs plan, Romney introduced the education component into the debate, combining jobs and skills, which come from education.

Obama: We have to improve our education system — we have a program called Race to the Top and now we are going to hire 100,000 math and science teachers.

Romney: I agree education is key to the future of our economy but we have 27 different training programs across government not working together. (we are fact checking this)

Obama: Says he inherited 18 programs for education that were well intentioned but not working for kids; that one teacher in NV has 42 kids and 10 year old textbooks. (we are fact checking this, too!)

This smattering of their words scratches the surface of an engaging, competitive conversation that highlighted education six times (at least) before the first 15 minutes were up and despite having been asked no direct questions about education. The candidates would go on to amplify their points throughout, and eventually address the proper federal role, which, despite suggestions among education reformers to the contrary, really is very, very different. And by all twitter, news media and pundit reports, even on this issue Romney was the winner.

Before I get to that, I have to say that I’m a bit concerned it’s the pollsters who are winning. The President was able to weave in class size and money, as if those two issues were the answer. Well that’s what the pollsters say, and that’s what a lot of people who are too busy to read the research or data believe. But it’s not accurate.

It is an “everything old is new again” tactic to winning friends and influencing people but it’s the proverbial “chicken in every pot” formula and the and candidates sparred on exactly how much chicken should be promised to the respective pots…or whether it was the government’s role to find it, bake it and put it there.

As the president repeated the word “invest” or “investment,” I thought back to Ed Secretary Arne Duncan’s comments yesterday at the press club where he boasted about spending, while accusing Romney of wanting to make cuts. That puzzles me. For years, our colleagues in the Obama Administration have prided themselves on their unique reform pedigree, their progressive approach. But that’s scarce in the campaign talk these days. Why?

I think back to those pollsters I’ve followed for years, how these days, talking about “investment” scores brownie points, and reform is, well, so anti-establishment. So with the stakes high, “invest” in education is being used to sell, and sell hard, that education spending will not suffer under Obama II.

The candidates agreed that there is a fundamental difference in their views of government.

The president harkened back to the words of Abraham Lincoln, celebrating his embrace of our great freedoms and enterprise, but saying, that “clearly education is one of those things we can do together.” Lincoln started land grant colleges, the president said, and…if people are educated we are all better off.

“When it comes to education, we have to reform schools that are not working… we had a program called RtTT we’ll give money if you do reforms, but I’ve also said lets hire more teachers…hard pressed states can’t do that. We’ve seen teachers laid off — it’s the kind of investment the federal government can make, it can’t do everything… but it can help. Gov Romney doesn’t believe we need to hire teachers.”

Romney pushed back. That’s simply not true. I value teachers. Does the federal government have a responsibility to improve education? It’s the purview of local and state government, Romney responded, and the primary federal role for kids with special needs (eg IDEA/Title 1 money) should help them get educated at their school of choice. That money “should follow the kids to the schools of their choice.”

That comment stumped Obama. I was surprised. He could have jumped on the school choice band wagon but doing so would have angered the unions while exciting his progressives supporters. Pollsters.

Romney returns another punch. “I propose we grade our schools make them more effective, more efficient. Massachusetts schools are ranked #1 in nation…”

Out of the gate, Romney’s points hit home with reformers. Point Number 3 on Romney’s list of things to fix the economy was to make sure “our people have the skills to succeed and the best schools in the world, which they are not now.”

They are not now, he said. They are not the best. There. He did the unpopular thing. He told the American people our schools are not good. And that’s when the first debate within a debate — about education — ensued.

After that, any time Romney mentioned education Obama had to do so as well. It became tit for tat, competitive and aggressive. And it became a debate where education, which was not supposed to be present at all tonight, ended up factoring prominently.

It all goes to show that, no matter what your specific cause or reform approach, reformers who have worked hard for years to see their issues recognized, should be thankful. Many a presidential campaign has come and gone for this particular blogger and oftentimes education is but a token mention to the interest groups watching. There are wide variations in our candidates on their points of view, their appetite and their attitude toward educational change. But at least they recognize — both of them — finally — that education is a critical voter issue. So whether they prey upon poll-tested-words or simply say what they believe, they at least know how important the issue of ED REFORM is, and that it is here stay. And with 20 years of working for this real attention for real education reform, I am more than happy it is, to President Obama and Governor Romney’s credit, worth the debate.