NEW YORK -- The desire for a lighter federal hand in the nation's schools ruled the discussions at an education forum Thursday night with four of the GOP presidential hopefuls.
"I believe that the federal role should be minimized but the local role should be maximized," former Godfather's Pizza CEO Herman Cain said to open up the candidates' discussions. "The federal government," he continued, "has a responsibility as far as keeping standards but not imposing standards at the local level."
Cain voiced his views at the Education and Election 2012 Presidential Forum, hosted by the College Board and News Corporation at the New York Hilton. While all of the GOP candidates were invited to participate, only former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum attended in person, with Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) and Cain speaking via satellite.
"There's very little discussion of this issue," said Joel Klein, former New York City schools chancellor and News Corp. education chief, referring to a lack of education discussions in recent GOP presidential debates. Klein moderated the discussion along with Paul Gigot, editor of the Wall Street Journal's editorial page. The format allowed for opening statements and discussions with Klein and Gigot, but did not allow for debate among the candidates.
It became clear that a GOP presidential win from one of the four candidates at the forum would likely mean a winding down of an era of increased federal regulations for schools and education dollars, as well as a rise in support for school voucher programs. But while the candidates disagreed with what they saw as the Obama administration's heavy hand in schools, most agreed with Obama that important methods for improving education include increasing the number of charter schools and judging teachers based on merit, instead of experience.
Cain spoke first, saying that his education policy would target teachers, parental engagement and educational institutions. "Over the past couple of decades, we have lost some ground. And that suggests that we need to do some things differently," he said, speaking from Arkansas.
Like U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, Cain said he is an advocate of paying teachers for higher performance, but did not weigh in on the hotly-debated topic of how school districts should define teacher quality. "We need to review this whole seniority system," Cain said, referring to the basis for promoting and paying teachers based on experience instead of merit.
Charter schools, he added, engender competition, which "makes things better."
When Gigot pressed Cain on the viability of leaving management decisions -- such as the setting of academic standards -- up to states, Cain said that while a minimal federal role runs the risk of leaving some states behind, competition would ultimately level the field. "If a state continues to deteriorate in terms of its educational performance ... the forces of competition over time will cause them to make changes," he said. He added that his peers' cries for the abolition of the federal Department of Education are "premature."
Santorum also stressed a minimal federal role in education, saying more control should be shifted into the hands of parents. While he said that compulsory K-12 schooling should not be eliminated, he advocated for home schooling.
Too often, Santorum added, the education debate's fixation on exam performance means that moral development loses out. "Education ... is also about holding the moral imagination of our children, teaching them the virtue and the values that are important," he said. He bashed the No Child Left Behind Act's focus on testing as only a "piece of what education is supposed to be about." According to Santorum's education materials, "NCLB should be repealed along with other federal programs, with the exception of funding for special needs children." Federal education money, he says, should be distributed by block grants instead of attached to specific regulations like NCLB.
Bachmann spoke via satellite, describing raising foster children and her involvement in education in Minnesota, which included starting a charter school there. (According to a New Yorker profile by Ryan Lizza, however, Bachmann's charter school floundered before she left its board).
Bachmann called for an end to the Department of Education, saying the agency has ballooned and that its money would better serve children in the hands of states and school districts. She also took on NCLB, saying, "It was a well-intentioned law but .. the federal government essentially took over control of the local schools."
Gingrich's education platform most closely echoed that of the Obama administration. He explicitly praised Duncan's work, recounting a trip he took to visit schools to promote Race to the Top with Duncan and Rev. Al Sharpton. But the extension of Duncan's work yielded a "gradual movement toward national standards," Gingrich said, criticizing a lack of customization of education for individual students. "Everything conservatives have historically feared ... inch by inch starts to show up."
Education, Gingrich said, has become mired in bureaucracy between teacher education schools, government programs and teachers' unions. Large educational institutions, he said, stifle innovation. In his eyes, the Department of Education should only be in charge of research.
Speaking to reporters after the event, Gingrich reviewed Obama's education record. "Having charter schools was very good," he said. "But I think they have been consistently unwilling to take on the teachers' unions and they have consistently flinched about really being serious about taking them on, and that's unfortunate."
"Taking on the teachers' unions," he continued, amounts to "insisting on charter schools, insisting on school choice, insisting on merit pay, insisting on accountability, things that are very practical .. It's been very hard for them [Obama and Duncan] to be willing to really have the kind of direct disagreement with the unions that would be necessary to get merit back into the system and to get children placed first rather than the union members."
But charter schools and paying teachers based on merit have yielded mixed results. When asked about his support for these tactics given the murky research, Gingrich responded, "To suggest that merit pay doesn't work would be to reject everything we know about the rest of America."