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Mitt Romney, Barack Obama Campaigns Fall Short On Specifics For Early Education

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During Mitt Romney's tenure as governor, he had one-on-one meetings with Patricia Haddad, the Massachusetts Democratic House Speaker Pro Tempore, precisely two times. The first time, he congratulated her on achieving her position. The second time, he arranged the meeting because he couldn't get what he wanted.

So in 2006, at Romney's behest, Haddad walked past a velvet rope and into Romney's office. The governor had proposed "quite a big piece" of education legislation, Haddad recalls, and he wasn't sure why it couldn't pass. The bill, called the Act to Reform Education, included merit pay for teachers, a new teacher evaluation process, and perhaps most controversially, it mandated classes that would prepare parents to be involved in their kids' education.

"Why isn't my bill passing?" Haddad said Romney asked her. After she explained that he'd failed to build constituent and legislative support for these measures, he ended the meeting, Haddad said. On early childhood education, Haddad added, Romney didn't propose any ideas -- except for this one.

It was this bill, and a focus on parents, that Romney brought up this fall when Brian Williams asked him about his early education initiatives at NBC's Education Nation. "To have one parent that stays closely involved with the education of the child and can be at home in those early years of education can be extraordinarily important," Romney said.

He added later in the interview: "I proposed in my state that before you could send your child to go to kindergarten, that the parents had to go to a training program to learn about the impact of education. And again, I wasn't able to get it done."

While Romney is still turning back to his 2006 idea when asked about early education, other policies that might affect the nation's youngest learners have received almost no air time from either campaign. "Policymakers still see early childhood primarily as a 'nice guy' issue about doing good things for impoverished families and little kids -- not an economic issue or one that's relevant to non-low-income voters," Sara Mead, a policy analyst at the Bellwether Education Partners, wrote in a recent blog post.

Over the last decade, early learning has received attention from neuroscientists who explain that since young brains absorb more, it's easier to invest in kids earlier instead of playing catch-up later. And as the income gap in America has grown, researchers have shown that pre-kindergarten access can help poor kids prepare for kindergarten, get into college, and eventually find jobs.

But unlike in 2008, neither campaign has released a formal position paper on early childhood education. Romney's 34-page education white paper does not mention pre-school. While President Barack Obama has had a chance to show the world his early education priorities -- increasing funding for Head Start (a pre-K service that focuses on educational and developmental growth), implementing quality controls for the program, and holding a competition for early learning -- he has not specified how he would approach early education if he wins reelection.

Obama's advisers point to his 2013 budget request and presidential record as evidence of his focus on the area. "The president over the years has demonstrated a core conviction about improved access and quality of early learning for all kids," Obama education adviser Jon Schnur told The Huffington Post. "In the second term, the president will continue to build on his conviction and his core beliefs."

Some early education advocates say that despite his efforts, Obama still has not done enough. Maggie Severns, an early childhood education expert at the think tank New America Foundation, said that Obama campaigned on early education in 2008, seeking to replicate programs that follow kids from birth to high school, such as the Harlem Children's Zone. The result, she said, is the federal Promise Neighborhoods program. "It's pretty small, it's not a ton of money," she said.

Sara Mead, an associate partner at Bellwether Education Partners who also works on the Education Reform Commission for the New York State Education Department, took to the pages of The New Republic to say that Obama's early education efforts are "too little, too late." She asserts that a focus on K-12 and college reforms have caused "early childhood education" to fall "by the wayside," and that the early learning competition was "deeply problematic."

In response to detailed questions on early education, the Romney campaign provided few specifics. "Governor Romney understands the importance of early childhood education, and as governor, he worked to ensure that the state’s early education programs were effective and efficient," campaign spokeswoman Amanda Henneberg said in an email to HuffPost.

"He also understands the important role that parents play in education and worked in Massachusetts to involve parents in their children’s education," she continued. "As president, Governor Romney would work to make federal early education programs work more efficiently and empower states to do the same."

While Romney boasts about the quality of K-12 education in Massachusetts, some say the state shouldn't be as proud of its early education offerings. "Massachusetts is toward the bottom of the pack," said Steven Barnett, who leads the Rutgers University-based National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER). "They're not particularly good on quality, they're not particularly good on access. They've made basically no progress for a decade."

Under Romney's tenure, Massachusetts got its first statewide office for early childhood education. But Haddad said the state's legislature forced him into it. David Driscoll, who served as education commissioner under Romney, agreed that "it was really more of a legislative thing."

Romney, Driscoll recalled, worried about the plateau between standardized test scores in fourth and eighth grade, so he pumped resources into those grades -- and not pre-K. Driscoll said he told Romney that the lackluster test scores were a result of different exams, but recalled that Romney "wasn't a huge proponent of early childhood education. He just wasn't sure the investment was worth it."

So Driscoll said he wasn't surprised when, in 2006, Romney vetoed a widelylauded and unanimously passed bill that would have created universal pre-kindergarten, ensuring all kids between ages 2 and 4 had education programs. According to Romney's veto message, the reforms did not consider the fiscal impact. "He would be very concerned about starting down a certain path if you start talking about pre-K, 3 year olds," Driscoll said. "It is a significant cost."

During Romney's tenure, according to the New America Foundation, overall early education funding in Massachusetts increased in some years and decreased in others. But as NIEER reported, the amount of funding per student decreased from $5,011 to $3,681.

If elected president, Romney's views on early education would manifest in how he deals with Head Start, a public and mostly federally-funded service. At an education debate last week, Phil Handy, Romney's education adviser, described Head Start as more of a "social experience" and not an academic one, adding that without serious improvements, pre-school should be managed at the state-level.

But advocates say cognitive growth is an important pre-school ingredient. Driscoll said he expects that as president, Romney would be "very wary of going down a path of advocating full scale early childhood programs."

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