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Dream Vice Presidential Debate Questions from Education Reformers

by Jeanne Allen
October 11, 2012

As I wrote last week, the first Presidential debate was a pleasant surprise from my perspective as a veteran education reformer accustomed to sitting through years of debates, listening to candidates talk about important issues like the economy, jobs, and national security with barely a mention of the building block for the solution to all of those problems – EDUCATION.  It would be wonderful to hear from the Vice Presidential candidates on the issue, since both have had occasion to vote or otherwise stake out positions on education reform, and it would be helpful to hear their positions laid out more specifically.

Below are a few of the questions we would ask the Vice Presidential candidates, as well as some additional information that might provide context for debate viewers in the event these questions are raised.

Question 1: FOR VICE PRESIDENT BIDEN.  Governor Romney has proposed allowing federal money allocated for students most in need, students who are typically stuck in failing schools, to follow them to schools of choice where those programs currently exist at the state level. What is your position on this and in general, how do you now feel about providing poor children the choices you and the other candidates have been afforded?

Once upon a time Vice President Biden parted company with his party to vote to authorize a school choice program for the District of Columbia, twice, a program President Clinton vetoed.  Others, such as Senators Lieberman and Landrieu were also early supporters.  In this Administration, however, the same program was zeroed of the budget — twice — and only restored after pushing and no-holes barred deal making by the House leadership.  It would be worth knowing how the VP could explain why he let this happen.

Question 2: FOR CONGRESSMAN RYAN. You voted for HR 1, The No Child Left Behind Act, which authorized a federal accountability system that has had a strong impact on states and local community behaviors, much of which you support. Today the Obama Administration has issued waivers to the program in the absence of it lacking renewed authorization or changes that both sides may want. What is your view of the House’s position today on NCLB?

The Congressman’s support for NCLB is well known, and Governor Romney has been positive in the past as well.  But the leaders of today’s House of Representatives have taken the position that the act was too top heavy, and they’d prefer local control again. That kind of control — in which school boards, school districts and teachers unions dictated local policy that protected their own interests and masked school failure behind bad data and no transparency — was the root cause of NCLB being enacted.  The Rs have shifted. Wonder how Congressman Ryan squares his previous support with his colleagues — and with the Duncan waivers.

Question 3: FOR VICE PRESIDENT BIDEN.  In the first presidential debate President Obama seemed to be reading off the latest poll results when he offered smaller class sizes and said he’d invest more in education to solve its problems. What is the Administration’s evidence for smaller class size impact and how much money is your administration planning to spend on helping schools lower class size? Where is the evidence that additional spending on more programs will result in student achievement gains?

The notion of class size reduction really does contradict other policies the President and his education leadership team endorse. The structural changes in education that have been created by NCLB or incentivized for some states by Race to the Top are about choice and accountability, which are outputs, not inputs. In fact the only group that pushes lower class sizes are the teachers unions, as they see it as a labor issue, not as an education issue.  Will anyone in the media ever be brave enough to tackle that sacred cow with the current Administration?

Question 4: FOR CONGRESSMAN RYAN.  You and others in your camp have said that there are not many fundamental differences on education between Romney-Ryan and Obama-Biden.  What are the similarities and what are the differences?

Reformers are split on this issue. On one hand, President Obama and many of his colleagues talk about charter schools, performance pay and other long-time reforms that teachers unions are against. On the other hand, the level and intensity of such laws is rarely discussed. There are good charter laws and bad ones, there are very small pilots aimed at helping pay teachers for performance and then there are whole, state-wide laws.  It’s hard to believe that a Romney-Ryan ticket would see enormous similarities. Are the differences there, or is it a matter of not wanting to look like they are against a popular set of initiatives if they started splitting hairs?

Question 5: FOR VICE PRESIDENT BIDEN.  You and the president boast about your signature education program, Race to the Top, and suggest it had a major impact on state and local reform, including the comment made at the last debate that RtTT led to adoption of 43 new laws.  What are those laws — can you name them? — and what do we know today about their impact on student achievement?

While RtTT created a lot of noise, the jury is still out on its impact.  Many of the states that adopted reforms and applied for funds were well on their way to doing so before the Administration created the program. Even a few states that used the carrot of more federal money in a recession and ended up adopting programs (Delaware and Tennessee, for example) are not sure of the impact yet.  But 43? That’s a stretch. Let’s find out. Will Biden be able to name the states or their reforms? How about just a few?

Question 6: FOR BOTH.  How do you distinguish between the work of rank and file teachers, and the work of the teachers unions? What would you say to the union leadership about their positions on school choice, charter schools, performance pay, online learning? What would you say to teachers individually about your respective Administrations?

Congressman Ryan hails from the state where the teachers unions were in the lead in attempting to recall Governor Scott Walker. Doing so would have caused a roll back not only of collective bargaining reforms but of charter school and school choice programs.  Is he willing to say boldly that he believes unions are a problem and risk offending teachers who might be discouraged by such comments? VP Biden has always been endorsed by the teachers unions but has supported charter schools and even a modest school choice program (see Question 1). With a few minutes of questioning, we might get to the heart of whether he believes the teachers unions are making a positive impact — or are obstructionist.

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For more on where Romney and Obama camps stand on critical education issues, head over to our Education and the Presidential Candidates page.

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