In a week-long series of campaign activities that began Wednesday with an address to the Latino Coalition's Annual Economic Summit, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney is taking on the issue of the state of the nation's schools.
"Too many dreams are never realized because our education system is failing," Romney said, according to prepared remarks. "We are in the midst of a national education emergency. The only reason we don't hear more about it is because our economic troubles have taken our national attention away from the classroom."
Romney will push for school vouchers, deregulating and expanding charter and online schools and a lighter federal hand in education. In the broader sense, Romney's message on schools is one that seeks to paint President Barack Obama as wholly beholden to special interests in a way that prevents him from governing on children's behalf.
For the last year, followers of the 2012 presidential campaign have heard very little from candidates on the topic of education. While the issue ranks high among voters' priorities, it rarely determines votes on its own, but tends to poll even higher among women, a demographic that could boost Romney, who is currently locked in dead heat with Obama.
"If I'm president of the United States, instead of just giving lip service to improving our schools, I will actually put the kids first and the union behind in giving our kids better teachers, better options and better choices for a better future," Romney said at a Tuesday evening fundraiser.
His rhetoric about putting children first is familiar in education circles: It's the adopted mantra of the movement known as "education reform," a consensus group among Democrats and Republicans that favors accountability, data, charter schools and linking teacher evaluations to test scores.
But the reform movement has embraced Obama for the most part. As a senator, the president drew hundreds to the first fundraiser for a group known as Democrats for Education Reform, an advocacy group that numbers among liberals' major sources for education funding outside of unions.
"The president can't have it both ways: He can't talk up reform, while indulging the groups that block it," Romney said. "He can't be the voice of disadvantaged public school kids, and the protector of special interests."
While Romney's rhetoric on Obama's education record seeks to characterize the president as a myopic union apologist, a look at teachers unions' reactions to his policies shows that this is not the case. Teachers have openly rebelled against Obama and his Secretary of Education Arne Duncan because, for the first time, a Democratic president has advanced policies that incentivize upending the hiring structures supported for decades by unions.
"The two major teachers unions take in $600 million each year," Romney said. "That's more revenue than both of the political parties combined."
And while union coffers do ultimately fund Democratic campaigns like Obama's, that doesn't mean the groups see eye to eye with the president. Last summer, the teachers unions partially funded a "Save Our Schools" rally that berated the administration for its education strategy. As recently as Monday, Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, publicly chided Obama on education, calling the latest version of the Race to the Top an exercise in "competitive grant programs that don't serve all children." The National Education Association endorsed Obama last summer, but not without adopting a resolution that became unofficially known as "13 Things We Hate About Arne Duncan."
But while the unions may differ with the president on policy issues, Mitt Romney might not. Advocates among both Democrats and Republicans don't see much difference in the substance of the candidates' positions on education. On Wednesday, Democrats for Education Reform issued a press release that suggested that "Romney seemed to be using the four assurances of Obama's landmark Race to the Top initiative as talking points. Without acknowledging Race to the Top, of course."
"They're pretty close on education, to be honest," one Romney campaign source said. "The president has been a supporter of choice, which is new for Democrats. The president has been very strong on teacher quality. ... They'll find rhetorical ways to distinguish themselves, but there's a fair amount of agreement."
Romney even uses the administration's language on education. "This is the civil rights issue of our era," Romney said Tuesday, repeating one of Duncan's favorite refrains.
The White House is trying to wave off Romney's policies. "Is that the first time that Governor Romney has mentioned education since he began running for president this time?" White House press secretary Jay Carney asked. "It's the first time I've heard of it."
Obama's campaign is also questioning Romney's record. Massachusetts is often praised for being one of the highest academically performing states, but it is also notorious for tremendous achievement gaps. As the Obama campaign notes, while governor, Romney cut funding for several education initiatives, including $1 million from Head Start, blocked a universal pre-kindergarten program and tried to eliminate full-day kindergarten.
Romney's education plans wouldn't spend any further money on schooling, according to the president's campaign. "That's the contrast that Americans face in this election: between a president who has made critical investments in and reforms to education ... and Mitt Romney, whose Romney Economics would prioritize tax breaks for millionaires and billionaires," Obama campaign spokesperson Lis Smith said in a statement in response to Romney's proposals.
On Wednesday, the Romney campaign unveiled its specific education proposals. Romney would use Washington, D.C.'s voucher program as a national model and would expand the program, allowing federal funding to sponsor vouchers in states that allow them. Obama zeroed out the vouchers in his 2013 budget proposal.
Romney's education platform also includes tweaks to the No Child Left Behind Act, the Bush-era law that extended the federal government's role in education by mandating standardized tests and performance goals. Romney's advisers Oren Cass and Eric Fehrnstrom said on a conference call that while Romney supports the gist of the policy, he would "replace federally mandated school interventions with a requirement that creates straightforward public report cards."
Civil rights groups have objected to the proposal to roll back schools' accountability to the federal government, and in pursuing such a policy, Romney has lost at least one adviser from his education group: former U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings, a consummate NCLB cheerleader. In March, Education Week reported that Spellings, now a senior education adviser at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, was working with the campaign on education.
But after Romney released his roster of education advisers Tuesday, a source close to Spellings confirmed to HuffPost that Spellings ultimately chose not to serve due to differences on federal accountability in NCLB, although she still supports the candidate in general.
Even without Spellings, the list of advisers looks like a "George W. Bush third term in education," says Diane Ravitch, a New York University historian who worked as an assistant secretary for Bush's Education Department before turning against those policies and becoming the face of a movement of teachers (and unions) that opposes similar policies implemented by the Obama administration.
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