Although moderator Jim Lehrer of “PBS NewsHour” did not select education as one of the six segments on which the two candidates would focus during the first presidential debate, both President Barack Obama and former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney devoted a significant amount of time to the issue. The topic of education was also popular among debate viewers, enough so that education-related messages ranked first on Twitter, besting health care, jobs, and the economy. And while Romney’s comment about Big Bird had a lot of people talking the day after the debate, education observers were focused on Romney’s pledge not to cut education funding.
During the October 3 debate in Denver, Colorado, each candidate outlined a multiple-point plan for creating jobs and boosting the economy that included a focus on education. Obama’s plan includes investments in education and training, developing new sources of energy, changing the tax code to help small business and American companies, and reducing the deficit. Romney’s plan also focused on energy, deficit reduction, and small business, as well as ensuring that “our people have the skills they need to succeed and the best schools in the world,” Romney also said he would open up trade, particularly in Latin America.
When asked for specifics on his plan, Obama cited “enormous progress” in improving the nation’s education system, specifically saying that Race to the Top “prompted” forty-six states to raise standards, a reference to the Common Core State Standards that were developed by the nation’s governors and chief state school officers. Obama added that he wanted to hire 100,000 new math and science teachers, create 2 million more slots for students at community colleges, and keep college tuition low.
Obama also called for a larger role for business in education reform. Specifically, he would like to see businesses partner with community colleges and set up training programs that would prepare students for jobs. “One of the things I suspect Governor Romney and I probably agree on is getting businesses to work with community colleges so that they’re designing training programs,” Obama said. “And people who are going through them know that there’s a job waiting for them if they complete it.”
Romney agreed on the importance of education, saying it was “key” to the future of the nation’s economy, but he implied that too much federal overhead was limiting progress. Pointing out that the federal government has forty-seven training programs, Romney said he would “get those dollars back to the states” so they could go to workers who could “create their own pathways” to the training they need.
One chief point of contention between the two candidates was Romney’s economic plan, which, Obama said, includes $8 trillion in new tax cuts and military spending and would require a cut in the federal education budget by up to 20 percent.
“That kind of approach,” Obama said, “will not grow our economy, because the only way to pay for it without either burdening the middle class or blowing up our deficit is to make drastic cuts in things like education, making sure that we are continuing to invest in basic science and research, all the things that are helping America grow. And I think that would be a mistake.”
In response, Romney made the statement that got education advocates’ attention more than any other. “I’m not going to cut education funding,” Romney said. “I don’t have any plan to cut education funding …”
Romney then turned the tables on Obama and pointed to Obama’s own budget, which, Romney said, put $90 billion into green jobs. “I’m all in favor of green energy,” Romney said. “$90 billion—that would have hired 2 million teachers.”
While saying that the primary responsibility for education is at the state and local levels, Romney acknowledged that the federal government can “play a very important role.” He congratulated U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan for pursuing Race to the Top and said he agreed with some—not all—of the ideas associated with it.
At the same time, Romney implied a preference for vouchers, saying he wanted low-income children receiving Title I funds and students with disabilities receiving IDEA funds to be able to go to the school of their choice. “So all federal funds, instead of going to the state or to the school district,” Romney said, “I’d have [the funds] follow the child and let the parent and the child decide where to send their student.”
Romney said he would help schools be more competitive by grading them and helping parents know which schools are succeeding and failing so parents can take their children to schools that are more successful. “I don’t want to cut our commitment to education,” Romney said. “Massachusetts schools are ranked number one in the nation. This is not because I didn’t have commitment to education. It’s because I care about education for all of our kids.”