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DEBATING EDUCATION: Obama and Romney Promote Education Records, Importance of Education to the Economy and Public Safety During Final Debates

“If our young people have opportunity, then they are less likely to engage in these kinds of violent acts.”

Although education was not a big topic during the final two presidential debates, both President Barack Obama and former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney linked education’s importance to the nation’s economy and public safety while promoting education reforms they support as president and governor, respectively. One possible issue of contention that emerged between the candidates was the issue of immigration and how each administration would treat the children of illegal immigrants.

In response to a question during the October 16 town hall debate on illegal immigrants who are productive members of society, Romney expressed support for giving green cards to people who graduate with valuable skills, such as math and science. When discussing pathways to citizenship, Romney said military service could be one way that children of illegal immigrants could become permanent residents, but he stopped short of saying he would grant citizenship to children who went to college. The citizenship-through-higher-education pathway is a provision in the DREAM Act, which is currently pending before the U.S. Congress. During the January 17 Republican debate, Romney stated his opposition to the DREAM Act: “I would veto the DREAM Act if provisions included in that act say that people who are here illegally, if they go to school here long enough, get a degree here that they can become permanent residents.”

Obama, who mentioned Romney’s opposition to the DREAM Act during their October 16 town hall, fully supports the DREAM Act, but he has not been able to get favorable Congressional action.

Both candidates used a question on a possible ban on AK-47s and other assault weapons as a way to insert their education positions and stressed the importance of good schools to ensuring that children have a productive future. Obama talked about providing young people with opportunities through good schools while working with faith groups and law enforcement to “catch [violence] before it gets out of control.” He expressed support for a comprehensive policy that would get automatic weapons out of the hands of criminals and the mentally ill, but would also discourage violent action before it occurs. “If our young people have opportunity, then they are less likely to engage in these kinds of violent acts,” Obama said.

Romney agreed with Obama’s focus on good schools and said the nation had to change its culture of violence. “I believe if we do a better job in education, we’ll give people the hope and opportunity they deserve and perhaps less violence from that,” Romney said. He also stressed the important role that parents—particularly both parents in the home—can play in raising their children. “If there’s a two-parent family, the prospect of living in poverty goes down dramatically,” Romney said. “The opportunities that the child will be able to achieve increase dramatically.”

During the October 16 town hall—as well as the October 22 debate on foreign policy—both candidates highlighted their education records. Romney pointed to Massachusetts’s reputation for having the best public schools in the country and noted that fourth and eighth graders in Massachusetts tested first in the nation in math and English when he was governor. He also promoted his ability to work with Republicans and Democrats to “put in place education principles that focused on having great teachers in the classroom” and gave Massachusetts’s students a graduation exam to determine whether they had the skills necessary to compete in the workforce.

For higher education, Romney discussed a scholarship program that gave four years of free tuition at a Massachusetts public institution of higher education to Massachusetts students who graduated in the top quarter of their class. He also said he wanted to “make it easier for kids to afford college” and keep the Pell grant program going and continue the federal student loan program.

In both debates, Obama said he wanted the United States to “have the best education system in the world” and promoted education reforms his administration has supported. He discussed the move by forty-six states and the District of Columbia to adopt the Common Core State Standards that raise expectations for all students. Referring to the School Improvement Grant program, Obama said some of the nation’s lowest-performing schools were starting to improve. He talked about gains in student achievement in math and science and programs with community colleges to retrain workers, including young people who may have dropped out of school. Obama also talked about his work to expand the Pell grant program, reforms he made to the student loan program, and the importance of community colleges to retraining workers for jobs in today’s economy.

During the October 22 debate focused on foreign policy, Obama talked about hiring more teachers in math and science and keeping class sizes low. “If you talk to teachers, they will tell you [class size] does make a difference,” Obama said. “And if we’ve got math teachers who are able to provide the kind of support that they need for our kids, that’s what’s going to determine whether or not the new businesses are created here.” Obama also took Romney to task for budget proposals that, Obama said, would “slash support for education” and undermine the nation’s long-term competitiveness.

Romney promoted his plan to make the United States “the most attractive place in the world to start businesses, to build jobs, to grow the economy,” but he stressed that it was not going to happen by just hiring teachers. “I love teachers, and I’m happy to have states and communities that want to hire teachers do that,” Romney said. “By the way, I don’t like to have the federal government start pushing its weight deeper and deeper into our schools. Let the states and localities do that. I was a governor. The federal government didn’t hire our teachers.”

With Election Day less than a week away and polls tightening nationally and in battleground states, both candidates are expected to spend most of their time on the ground in states, such as Florida, Ohio, and Virginia that will ultimately help decide the nation’s next president. To keep up with the latest news surrounding the presidential election, as well as updated national polls and polls from battleground states, visit

Video and transcripts from the October 16 and October 22 debates are available at

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