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Do the Candidates Really Want to Wake the Sleeping Issue of School Reform?

 Visiting Hamilton High School in Hamilton, Ohio, Jan. 8, 2002, President George W. Bush signs into law the No Child Left Behind

Visiting Hamilton High School in Hamilton, Ohio, Jan. 8, 2002, President George W. Bush signs into law the No Child Left Behind Act. White House photo by Paul Morse. PD.

Education is a sleeper issue in the 2012 election campaign. But do the candidates really want to wake it? Given the struggling nature of the economy and the ongoing risk of economic meltdown in Europe, perhaps it is no surprise that the issue has received relatively little attention from the mass media. If recent public opinion polls are to be believed, however, education is highly salient in the minds of voters. Indeed, according to a recent CNN poll, 78% of Americans report that education will have a major impact on their vote in the presidential election.

At the same time – and despite sharp partisan conflict between Democrats and Republicans in Congress – education has been an area of major, albeit submerged, programmatic reform in 2012. While major statutory reforms to federal education policies have not been forthcoming, behind-the-scenes administrative changes have profoundly altered the premier federal policy affecting elementary and secondary education: the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). Indeed, using its waiver authority, the Obama administration has, over the past few months, released more than thirty states from some of NCLB’s most controversial provisions, including the requirement that all students reach academic proficiency by 2014.

Given the level of public interest and the significance of recent policy changes, will the sleeper awake in time for the upcoming October 3 presidential debate on domestic policymaking? So far, neither Obama nor his Republican challenger, Mitt Romney, has made much of the issue during the campaign. Still, it’s possible that education could play an important part in the debate, because the issue fits into the broader narrative that each campaign wants to tell voters going into the election. For the Obama team, the waiver decisions represent yet another pragmatic presidential response to partisan Republican intransigence, and thus highlight the president’s responsible leadership style. Obama’s Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, suggested as much in the statement announcing the most recent waiver requests. “More and more states can’t wait any longer for education reform,” Duncan intoned. “A strong bipartisan reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act remains the best path forward in education reform, but as these states have demonstrated, our kids can’t wait any longer for Congress to Act.” Additionally, by touting his willingness to allow “states the flexibility to use local solutions to improve their schools”, as he does on his campaign website, Obama may be hoping to inoculate himself against charges, made repeatedly by his Republican opponent, that his administration has aggressively centralized political power in the federal government.

For the Romney campaign, the Obama administration’s waiver decisions provide an opportunity to reinforce its narrative about the virtues of deregulation and devolution in education. In effect, Romney could frame Obama’s waiver decisions as an implicit admission of the failure of the “big government” approach Romney has sought to pin on the president. Indeed, Romney has already laid the groundwork for this frame: in his policy statement on education, A Chance for Every Child, Romney has alleged that “Obama’s education policy exhibits the same failings that have been apparent in every facet of his agenda. He believes in more federal bureaucracy and more federal spending.” Furthermore, in speeches focused on education, such as his May 23 remarks to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Romney has already promised to “reduce federal micromanagement” of education and allow states and localities greater flexibility in implementing school reforms.

At the same time, however, both Obama and Romney might prefer to let this sleeper issue lie. In truth, raising the issue threatens to expose embarrassing inconsistencies in the positions of both candidates. While Obama has recently extolled the virtues of waivers and devolution, the fact is that he employed a muscular approach to federal education policymaking throughout his presidency. The president’s Race to the Top initiative pressured states to adopt a number of ambitious reforms in order to be eligible for federal funding under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, and his ill-fated proposal to reform NCLB sought to maintain, or extend, most of the major features of that law. Even the much-touted NCLB waivers come with a significant catch: to qualify, states must commit to adopting “college and career ready” educational standards, focusing more aid on the most vulnerable students, and designing systems capable of evaluating teachers and principals at least in part on the basis of student test scores.

Meanwhile, Romney’s paeans to local control are contradicted by his own stated positions on important education policy matters. While A Chance for Every Child pays lip service to decentralization, and includes a proposal (with, frankly, no chance of enactment in Congress) to provide struggling students with school vouchers, it largely reaffirms the muscular federal approach embraced by his Democratic adversary. As the document asserts, “States must have in place standards to ensure that every high school graduate is prepared for college or work and, through annual testing, hold both students and educators accountable for meeting them. The results of this testing, for both their own children and their schools, must be readily available to parents in an easy to understand format.” Not only is this a forthright assertion of continued, if not expanded, federal involvement in education standards, testing, and accountability; it is almost identical to the position held by the Obama administration. Voucher proposal aside, Romney is no herald of devolution.

In short, on core matters of standards, testing, and accountability, both Obama and Romney embrace strikingly similar positions, which feature a muscular federal role. Anyone who thinks otherwise is dreaming.

Jesse H. Rhodes is Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. He is the author of An Education in Politics: The Origin and Evolution of No Child Left Behind, published by Cornell University Press.

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