The economy and jobs will be the two biggest issues in this fall’s general election, but education will also factor in who votes for which candidate and why. Voters looking for major policy differences between the two candidates this November will have to look pretty hard to find any. Indeed, the striking thing about contemporary education politics is just how much agreement there is among policymakers and the public that the education system is broken and needs to be fixed.
Let’s begin with the K-12 sector. Anyone who has a child in a public school understands by now that the education landscape has changed dramatically since the enactment of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) in 2002. The act’s basic features are well known. The states must annually test students in math and reading in grades 3-8, and all students must be “proficient” in these subjects by 2014. Schools that fail to make “annual yearly progress” (AYP) face increasingly severe “corrective actions”—staff can be fired, a new curriculum installed, and longer school days instituted. If improvements aren’t made, failing schools can be taken over by a private company or even closed.
The latest findings of the highly respected Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup Poll of the Public’s Attitudes Toward the Public Schools suggests that the public supports key aspects of the educational reform agenda that NCLB enshrined. The 2011 poll found that most Americans like their own child’s school but are skeptical of the nation’s education system writ large; they want quality teachers who are fairly compensated; they increasingly like charter schools; and they are more dubious than ever about public sector unions. President Obama has garnered the support of the major teacher unions despite embracing an education agenda that differs little from that of his predecessor, George W. Bush. Race to the Top, the President’s signature education reform, has extended the NCLB framework, providing competitive federal grants to states willing to try experiments (i.e., “reforms”) that link teacher pay and performance to student achievement. The distinction between Obama and his predecessor is purely a semantic one—a distinction without a difference.
Governor Mitt Romney, the President’s likely opponent in November, also bows down at the altar of reform, having sworn allegiance to its major commandments: consumer choice, accountability, standards, and testing. As governor he tried and failed to overhaul Massachusetts’ education system, whose students routinely rank among the best performing in the country. None of this had anything to do with Romney’s one-term in office, but that won’t prevent him from boasting about it during the campaign. Where Romney and his party diverge from the President is in their call for even more parental choice and greater access to charter schools. Small-government conservatism, despite all the evidence to the contrary, remains the heart’s blood of the Republican Party. Romney’s support for parental empowerment speaks to that core belief as well as to his party’s larger “family values” agenda, in particular the current cause célèbre of rightwing educational reformers, home schooling.
Higher education, long an afterthought in presidential elections, might figure more prominently in this year’s contest. In his State of the Union Address in January, President Obama’s promise to clamp down on the sector by linking federal funding to student outcomes generated a flurry of debate. Is a new era of NCLB-like federal oversight of higher education in the offing? Or is this just an election-year ploy to stir the passions of the college-educated voting bloc who supported Obama in record numbers four years ago? Either way the President touched a raw nerve. The public has grown concerned over rapidly rising college costs, declining state funding, spiraling student loan debt, high dropout rates, and reports of lackluster learning on campuses across the country.
The problem is that most education leaders agree that the sort of heavy handed federal regulation that has been brought to bear on the K-12 system would ruin America’s great system of colleges and universities. It’s a system with its own brand of self-regulation—admission and degree requirements, peer review and tenure, accrediting boards and professional licensure exams—that works very well. It’s a system that offers students a wide range of institutional and price options. Most important of all, it’s a system whose energy and creativity flow from the freedom it gives faculty and students to think, research, teach, and learn.
Therein lies the catch: unlike other areas of social policy, when it comes to the politics of higher education the usual mix of regulation and/or spending cuts don’t make the grade. If the President pushes too hard for regulation he might alienate the “educated classes” whose support he needs to win. The stakes are even greater for Romney. If he embraces federal regulation in higher education, as George W. Bush did in K-12 with NCLB, it might weaken his claim to the small government, free market credentials that matter so much to the Republican base and that his past support for health care reform has already brought into doubt.
Taking their lead from state houses around the country, the candidates could support spending cuts. President Obama has consistently supported increased spending on higher education, most recently in his proposed budget, and that seems unlikely to change. Romney is in a tougher spot. The recent budget passed by the GOP-controlled House—an ideological showpiece that had no chance of making it out of the Democratic-led Senate—included deep cuts in education spending. His instinct as governor was to cut spending; and that’s been the theme of his campaign. The problem is that slashing funding for student aid does not exactly exude the “politics of hope” that the electorate typically prefers in its presidential candidates. Besides, at the national level dramatic funding cuts are harder to come by, particularly when the powerful higher education lobby is keeping close watch and when there are 18 million students enrolled in higher education, an overwhelming majority of whom rely on federal dollars of one form or another to stay in school.
That leaves the candidates with a final option—to do nothing. This is exactly why students and their families, and the colleges they attend, are in the pinch they are now. Aside from making more and more aid available, neither party has had any strategy at all for higher education for fifty years. Whether the candidates can come up with one in the next six months is anyone’s guess.
Christopher P. Loss is assistant professor of public policy and higher education at Vanderbilt University, and former Miller Center National Fellow. This piece originally appeared on the Princeton University Press Election 101 blog.