Mitt Romney shocked education insiders during the presidential debate last week when he promised not to cut education spending. Now, they're wondering if education will come up at Thursday night's vice presidential debate, and if so, whether GOP nominee Paul Ryan will reaffirm that promise -- at the risk of contradicting his own budget proposal.
Last week, after President Barack Obama pressed Romney on education spending -- and after countless advertisements attacking Romney on education cuts -- Romney made his pledge, marking his first specific remark on education spending: "I'm not going to cut education funding," he said. "I don't have any plan to cut education funding and grants that go to people going to college."
But the budget proposal produced by Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) that has since been passed by the House of Representatives and endorsed by Romney calls for 20 percent cuts to domestic discretionary spending. While it doesn't specify which education programs would be trimmed, beyond Pell grants, education spending is still part of that pot.
"The pot of money that includes education spending would be cut in the Ryan budget," said Joel Packer, who leads the nonpartisan Committee on Education Funding. "If education were not cut at all, which is what Governor Romney said, everything else would have to be cut more than 20 percent. If you think about what the everything else includes, it's the FBI, air traffic controllers, Congress itself, national security -- it would be unlikely that we're going to cut these things more than 20 percent."
Still, Packer said he was "pleasantly surprised" by Romney's statement last week. "If Romney is elected president, we'll hold him at his word to not cut education -- but the math is tricky." Packer noted that simply maintaining education spending may result in per-student cuts as student populations increase.
A source involved in Vice President Joe Biden's debate preparation told HuffPost's Jen Bendery that the vice president expects to raise the education funding issue. "This will turn on fiscal stuff," said Andy Rotherham, an education consultant who worked in the Clinton White House. "Ryan will try to say, 'We're the grownups here.' Biden will say, 'These guys will gut all the programs you care about.'"
Michael Petrilli, executive vice president of the right-leaning Thomas B. Fordham Institute, had similar expectations. "I wouldn't be surprised if Biden would pressure Ryan to ask him how he would cut education spending."
The issue is already an Etch A Sketch moment to Dennis Van Roekel, president of the National Education Association, the nation's largest teachers union. "In the debate last week, Romney came across as being such a defender of education -- but he told the Des Moines Register it was a waste of money to hire teachers." On Wednesday, Romney told the newspaper that "hiring schoolteachers is not going to raise the growth of the U.S. economy over the next three to four years."
Van Roekel said he is confused. "Which one do you believe, Mitt Romney?" he asked. "Just tell me."
In a Wednesday blog post, Romney's education advisor Martin West reaffirmed Romney's commitment to leave education spending alone. Van Roekel said he sees it as flip-flopping. "During the debate, I don't recall anything he said about education that I disagree with but none of what he said is contained in his policies," Van Roekel said.
Ryan might be stuck disagreeing with his own budget when it comes to Pell grants. According to Packer, in addition to the overall discretionary spending cuts, his budget specifically calls for cuts both in total funding and eligibility for the federal college grants. "It doesn't jive with Governor Romney said," Packer said.