WASHINGTON — When it comes to education, the Republican field of presidential candidates has a unified stance: Get the federal government out of schools. How they'd do that varies.
Take the Education Department. Reps. Michele Bachmann and Ron Paul along with Texas Gov. Rick Perry want to shut it down altogether, while Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich want to shrink it. Offering student loans? Herman Cain says the department should get out of that business.
And then there's the Bush-era education accountability law, No Child Left Behind. Perry calls it a "direct assault on federalism," while former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman has long expressed animosity toward the law.
Although former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney has said "we need to get the federal government out of education," he has been more willing to praise certain Education Department policies.
While polls show that voters clearly care about education, it hasn't been a driving issue in the race. Instead, it percolates at times. When it does, the dialogue – like many other issues in the race – has been primarily focused on the general theme of limiting the federal role more than on specific education policies.
Any comments of praise of a federal education policy can lead to accusations that a candidate supports federal overreach, said Frederick Hess, director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute.
For example, after Romney praised the Education Department's "Race to the Top" program, which has had states competing for billions in grant dollars, Perry called Romney out on it during a Sept. 22 debate saying, "Being in favor of the Obama `Race to the Top,' that is not conservative."
Generally, the candidates support more school choice options for students.
Limiting the federal government's role in education isn't a new argument among conservatives, many of whom disagreed with the decision to create a Cabinet-level department during the Carter administration.
President George W. Bush took a different view. He campaigned heavily in 2000 on the passage of No Child Left Behind and the need for tough assessment standards, specifically to help low income and minority children. Under No Child Left Behind, which was signed in 2002 with widespread bipartisan support, students are tested annually and schools that don't meet proficiency requirements face sanctions. The law, however, has become increasingly unpopular with critics saying it's too rigid, led to schools being unfairly deemed as "failures" and to teachers teaching to the test.
Many other Republicans went along – at least early on.
Santorum voted for the law.
When Texas' plan on No Child Left Behind was approved in 2002, Perry proudly said that "Texas was a model" for the national law and that the approval meant Texas would receive almost $400 million in new federal funding.
And in 2005, Romney testified on Capitol Hill in praise of the law. "I do look to the federal government to help set the benchmark where we can compare to how well we are performing, and, if we are not performing, to insist that we do the job or that we suffer the consequences at the state or local level," Romney said.
The candidates' records on education are revealing.
Bachmann has said she was driven to first run for office because of concerns over the education her more than 20 foster children were receiving. Two years ago, Gingrich hit the road with the Rev. Al Sharpton, a liberal civil right advocate, on a listening tour on education that Education Secretary Arne Duncan joined.
Huntsman, as Utah governor, signed a law in 2005 that defied the No Child Left Behind Act by giving the state's education standards priority over the federal requirements.
Perry has refused to have Texas adopt curriculum standards adopted by nearly every state or have his state compete in the Race to the Top competition, saying it "smacks of a federal takeover of public schools." Perry's positions helped earn him a rebuff by Duncan that he felt "very, very badly for the children" of Texas.
Romney used to support closing the Education Department, but in 2007 he said he'd come to see the value of the federal government's role.
In recent months, President Barack Obama has brought education back into the national political realm. He announced states could apply for waivers around many of the proficiency requirements in No Child Left Behind if they met certain requirements. He advocated for the passage of a jobs creation bill rejected by the Senate that included $30 billion to hire educators.
And, Obama announced he was using executive authority to allow potentially millions of qualified students and college graduates to consolidate their loans and accelerate a program that based payment options on income.
The announcement on student loans sparked some discussion among the GOP candidates at a forum. Bachmann said Obama's effort was an "abuse of power" that will give people incentives to dodge debt. Gingrich said government loans should be reprivatized before Obama bankrupts the entire country "by promising to every young person you will not have to pay your student loan as a student."
And Cain said that, "I do not believe it's the responsibility of the federal government to help fund college education."
Margaret Spellings, who served as education secretary under Bush, said the anti-federal talk on education among GOP candidates concerns her. She said the candidates should be speaking primarily about the needs of kids over adults and better ways to close achievement gaps and educate poor and minority kids – things she said she's not hearing about as much as she'd like. She said she wonders what would happen to important programs under a dissolved Education Department, such as educating disabled children.
"The federal role in education has always been around the needs of poor and disadvantaged kids, so I'd like to see the focus on that, I'd like to see talk of accountability," Spellings said.
Kimberly Hefling can be followed at http://twitter.com/khefling