For all the back and forth sparring during the presidential debate on Wednesday, one might think President Obama and his Republican challenger Mitt Romney don’t see eye to eye on anything. But look at Mitt Romney and President Obama’s respective education agendas and you’ll see something rather striking: plenty of ideological overlap about how to fix public schools.
Romney’s education platform, which calls on the federal government to tie federal education funding to state commitments to school reform, puts a focus on improving the U.S. teacher force by evaluating teachers based on their students’ test scores and expanding choice options for parents. Romney supports far more aggressive school choice models, including vouchers which encourage families to leave poor performing neighborhood schools for other private and charter schools. But he, like Obama, encourage the expansion of charter schools in the U.S. public education system. In fact, Romney’s ideas look remarkably like President Obama’s marquee education initiative Race to the Top, a competitive grant program which exchanged money for promises from states to enact harsher accountability measures for teachers, a more open school marketplace, and better data tracking. During the debate last night, Romney even managed to say he agrees with “some” of the ideas in Race to the Top.
But what dominated the education conversation last night was disagreement of education spending. Obama said public schools need more investment and, continuing a line of attack his administration has leaned on heavily lately, said Romney would cut education funding by 20 percent—a number pulled from GOP vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan’s proposed budget. Romney flatly rejected that charge. “I don’t have any plan to cut education funding and grants that go to people going to college,” Romney said on Wednesday. “I’m not planning on making changes there.” He also argued that $90 million Obama put toward green jobs could have gone to hiring more teachers—even though Obama has put money aside, in the 2009 economic stimulus and with his Education Jobs Fund, to save teacher jobs.
The overlap between Romney and Obama’s education proposals is a reflection of the way the mainstream education reform debate has coalesced around some basic tents: Charter schools are a healthy addition to the public school landscape; they’re nimble and unburdened by the bureaucracy-heavy neighborhood public schools, and their mere presence introduces competition and innovation. Teachers are the key to educational success, and therefore the culprit for educational failure, and evaluating teachers based on their students’ test scores is the way to improve the profession overall. Market ideals are the solution to America’s public school woes. These ideas are so ingrained in the discourse that they’ve become all but joint talking points.