Presidential Education Advisers Spar Over Education as a Budget Priority

On October 15 Jon Schnur, co-founder of America Achieves and an education advisor to President Obama, and Phil Handy, CEO of Strategic Industries and higher education co-chair of Romney’s Education Policy Advisory Group, debated education issues ranging from the role of the federal government to school choice to Common Core. The debate, hosted by Teachers College, Columbia University and Education Week and sponsored by the International Reading Association, did not offer revelations as to each candidate’s platform. It did, though, clarify the differences in how they would tackle increasing student achievement. 

Role of Federal Government in Education

Handy: While Romney would not eliminate the Department of Education, Handy said its role would be focused on two areas: transparency and choice. The federal government should provide transparent data to parents, educators, students, and leaders to empower their decisions on improving schools. In addition, the federal government should support programs that give students and parents greater choice in public education. “No child should be obligated to go to school if they live in a certain zip code,” said Handy.

Schnur: Schnur said that Obama’s policies reflect his core belief that as a nation we can do much better for all children, particularly those who are low income and underserved. The programs and funding created by his administration are an investment in the long-term health of the United States, as evidenced by the money in the stimulus package for education jobs and reform programs. Schnur says the goal is not to create mandates, but to support states and their reform efforts.

Common Core State Standards

Handy: While the Common Core make sense, they were drafted and adopted at the state level. It’s an opt-in program, enacted by the states. States—not the federal government—should sponsor the standards and the assessments.

Schnur: When there are state efforts to improve standards, the Obama administration feels it is proper to provide funds to support those efforts. Obama agrees that states should determine standards, but the federal government can support the adoption of college- and career-ready standards.

Education Funding

Handy: Using funds for assessment and curriculum is a state responsibility, not federal. The role of the federal government is to make sure the data is correct and shared appropriately. While the Romney campaign is not proposing cuts to education, there will be no new funding. A Romney administration would not be able to fund programs like Race to the Top because they contribute to the deficit, observed Handy.

Schnur: The difference between the two candidates is in their philosophies regarding cuts versus investments. President Obama believes spending money on education is an investment—Schnur described the Romney plan as a cap on that investment. The question of budget is a question of values and priorities. Schnur asked Handy to explain how Romney would fund education because Schnur does not think the math holds up when looking at Vice Presidential Candidate Ryan’s plan.

ESEA and NCLB Waivers 

Handy: Romney believes that Title I and IDEA money should be given directly to the children and follow them to the school of their choice. Title 2 funding should be block granted to states to use the way they want for professional development. In addition, charter schools should be empowered and funded. Romney does not believe in NCLB waivers in lieu of reauthorization because the waivers are too proscriptive. Romney would reauthorize NCLB and would review all executive orders like waivers.

Schnur: Schnur questioned how Romney’s choice proposal would work as many students are not able to go to a higher achieving school.  He said that if there is choice without accountability and funding, then there is no reform. Obama is investing in programs that support reform

Early Childhood

Handy: The primary federal role in early childhood is Head Start. Romney thinks Head Start should have different criteria and elements of success; it has gone on for decades not as an academic experience but as a social experience that is not preparing kids for school. State-supported early childhood programs are great, but that is not an appropriate role for the federal government.

Schnur: Obama believes there is no greater investment than in early learning; but it’s not investing more funding but also more regulations to reform Head Start. Investing in early childhood is also a cost savings because by doing a good job at the front end of education, children will be better prepared for school.

The debate transcript and archive will be available on the Education Week website.

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