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Arne Duncan's DNC Speech Focuses On Ryan Budget, But Not Class Size

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U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan stands on stage with stage manager David Cove during a walkthrough of his speech at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte Wednesday. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan stands on stage with stage manager David Cove during a walkthrough of his speech at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte Wednesday. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

When addressing the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte Wednesday, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan appealed to the crowd not in his official capacity, but "as a parent with two young children who attend a wonderful public school."

"No one has more at stake in this election than our kids, and that is why we need to re-elect President Obama!" Duncan said, before stressing that the quality of America's schools speaks to the next generation's employment prospects.

But Duncan did not overtly mention class size, the Obama campaign's loudest rallying cry against Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney when it comes to K-12 education. Instead, Duncan's brief remarks toed the line between Obama's education record, and the way the president's campaign has attacked Romney on the issue.

Two weeks ago, the Obama campaign released a television advertisement asserting that Romney "cannot relate" to public school issues, especially the need for smaller class sizes. "Mitt Romney says class sizes don't matter, and he supports Paul Ryan's budget, which could cut education by 20 percent," a voiceover says.

Obama also released a back-to-school report noting that 300,000 educators have lost jobs in the last three years since the recession ended. "These cuts force our kids into crowded classrooms," Obama said at the time.

But the Romney campaign was quick to note that, "Obama’s latest ad puts him directly at odds with his own education secretary, who has promoted teacher quality – not class size – as the most important factor in a good education," according to a statement Romney spokesperson Amanda Henneberg. (Duncan's spokesperson Justin Hamilton shot back: "What Secretary Duncan has said is that class size is especially important in the early years and we should focus our class size efforts where the evidence shows it’s most effective.")

In his Wednesday evening speech, Duncan mentioned the Romney-Ryan budget, but relegated class size to a brief clause, saying the budget would mean "fewer teachers in the classroom."

Until recently, the Democratic Party's education policy was driven by teachers' unions -- a huge party donor that traditionally advocated for increased funding. In 2007, the group Democrats for Education Reform was created, spurring a movement within the party to focus on school accountability, charter schools, standardized testing and using student test scores to partially formulate teacher ratings.

Obama's policies have navigated both the interests of unions and the reforms; a pocket of stimulus funding put 275,000 teachers back to work, but another piece created the "Race to the Top" competition, which rankled unions for encouraging the growth of charter schools and test-based evaluations.

The reform strand of the party has been on full display in Charlotte this week, with a film screening hosted by former Washington, D.C., schools chief Michelle Rhee, and then a DFER-hosted town hall Tuesday -- at the same time as a reception held by the National Education Association, the nation's largest teachers' union.

But Duncan's remarks ultimately focused on potential cuts under Romney, a topic appealing to both factions. "In order to cut taxes for millionaires and billionaires, Governor Romney will cut education for our children," Duncan concluded. "That's the difference in this election. They see education as an expense. President Obama's sees it as an investment. That's the choice in this election."

See Duncan's prepared remarks below:

I'm here tonight as a parent with two young children who attend a wonderful public school. No one has more at stake in this election than our kids, and that is why we need to re-elect President Obama!

Our president knows education is about jobs. It's about giving every child a shot at a secure middle-class life. Right now, we're in a race for jobs and industries of the future. If countries like China out-educate us today, they'll out-compete us tomorrow. The president believes that education begins at home with parents who take responsibility. But he also believes that teachers matter. In his first two years in office, he helped save the jobs of 400,000 educators.

And President Obama didn't just invest resources; he demanded reform. And 46 states responded by raising education standards. The president also believes teachers must be respected and paid like the professionals they are. No teacher should have to teach to the test. Great teachers should be recognized and rewarded.

And President Obama also knows that higher education is an economic necessity. He fought to keep student loan interest rates from going up. He fought for Pell grants. He took the big banks out of the federal student loan program and passed billions of dollars in savings on to young people. This year alone, he helped nearly 10 million students afford college.

The president knows that the path to the middle class goes right through America's classrooms. That was his path. That's America's path. However, his opponent believes differently.

Under the Romney-Ryan budget, education would be cut by as much as 20 percent. Think about what that would mean: 200,000 fewer children in Head Start, fewer teachers in the classroom, fewer resources for poor kids and students with disabilities, fewer after school programs. Ten million students could see their Pell grants reduced, putting higher education further out of reach. And these cuts wouldn't create jobs or pay down the deficit. They would go toward a huge new tax cut for those at the very top.

In order to cut taxes for millionaires and billionaires, Governor Romney will cut education for our children. That's the difference in this election. They see education as an expense. President Obama's sees it as an investment. That's the choice in this election. And that's why our president needs four more years!