On education, candidates differ greatly

Joe Nathan
Education Columnist

There could be major differences for students and schools, depending on whom is elected President.  That became clear after reviewing websites of Governor Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama, listening to their debates, and reading about recent exchanges between their education advisors.  Here are several key issues:

Early childhood education

President Obama has put millions more into early childhood education.  Minnesota has received some of that, to help evaluate existing programs, share results with families and expand access to the most effective ones. Obama says he would put more money into early childhood education in a second term.

In a recent debate between Presidential education advisors, Romney advisor, Phil Handy, former chair of Florida State Board of Education, criticized Head Start, which is the major, federally funded early childhood program. According to a story in USA Today (and other accounts), Handy commented, ““Head Start has been allowed to go on for decades not as an academic experience, unfortunately, but much more as a social experience, not preparing children for school.”

Not all Head Start, or early childhood programs are equally effective.  However, some have produced dramatic gains, especially for children from low-income families, and for youngsters who do not speak English in the home.

Looks like an Obama administration would mean more information about, and more support for, high quality early childhood education, than a Romney administration.

School Choice

Both President Obama and Gov. Romney have endorsed expansion of strong charter public schools and choice among public schools.  However, there is a big difference on tax support for private and parochial schools.  Obama has opposed this.  Romney has suggested allowing families to use federal funds currently designated for use with special need students, and those from low income families, to help pay tuition at private schools.  Obama also opposes and Romney supports, a tax-supported Washington, D.C. program allowing low-income families to attend public, private and parochial schools.

No Child Left Behind

Both candidates want changes in NCLB, which has become an unpopular law.  Ironically, it passed with bi-partisan support including Senator Ted Kennedy, Education Committee chair and President George Bush.

President Obama has encouraged changes in the law, but Congress has not agreed.  So the Obama administration has given “waivers” from key provisions to many states, including Minnesota. Previously states had to publish a “needs improvement” list of schools that included any public school serving a certain percentage of low-income students, in which a small sub-group of students did not meet state standards.  Waivers given to Minnesota and other states mean that list is longer published.  The focus has shifted to schools that have the lowest achievement with students from low-income families.

Romney advisors last week criticized these waivers as allowing different standards for different groups of students. They indicated Gov. Romney might cancel the waivers and attempt to change the law itself.

Federal Funding

Mr. Handy reported that Romney would spend the same amount on education, except for an increase in educational research. The Obama administration has suggested increased spending in several areas.

More information is at http://www.mittromney.com/issues/education and http://www.barackobama.com/education.

While there are many important issues, I think students and schools would benefit more from a second term for President Obama.

Joe Nathan, formerly a public school teacher, administrator, and PTA president, directs the Center for School Change. Reactions welcome, joe@centerforschoolchange.org.

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