-- The issue:
States and local governments have the primary responsibility for education in the United States. But the federal government gets a big say, too, by awarding billions in aid, often with strings attached.
Where they stand:
President Barack Obama and Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney agree that the No Child Left Behind education law needs revisions. But by including things like charter schools and teacher evaluations in his education policies, Obama has angered part of his base – the teachers' unions. Romney says those initiatives "make sense," but he also wants parents to have a greater choice in deciding where to send their children to school. He and Obama differ on voucher programs that use public money to send children to private schools.
Obama has called for college to be more accessible and won approval from Congress for a $10,000 college tax credit over four years and increases in Pell grants and other financial aid. Romney argues that increases in federal student aid encourage tuition to go up, too. He wants to see private lenders return to the federal student loan program. The two found common ground in supporting moves to block a doubling of interest rates on new federal Stafford loans this fall.
Why it matters:
"What did you do in school today?" It's a universal question asked by parents.
More than 8 in 10 Americans say education is an issue that is extremely or very important to them, according to an Associated Press-GfK poll this year. Only the economy ranked higher.
Yet, studies show that the United States lags behind other countries in reading, math and science, statistics frequently cited as hurting the nation's ability to compete globally.
And the cost of higher education is leaving students saddled with debt – or unable to afford it at all – when there's a growing recognition that students need college or some post-high school training to succeed in the job market. Obama, in fact, challenged all Americans to commit to at least one year of college or career training. Yet, as many recent graduates are finding out, there's no guarantee that a diploma will translate into a job.
At the same time, state budget cuts have resulted in teacher layoffs, larger class sizes and fewer special subjects in elementary and secondary schools. Colleges and universities also have had to make do with less. All of this trickles down to the kids and their classroom experience.
The federal government contributed just a small fraction of the more than $1.15 trillion spent nationally on education during the last school year, but it still yields great influence over such issues as accessibility, accountability and teacher quality.
Obama's "Race to the Top" competition, for example, has given billions of dollars in grants to states that pursued education policies the president supports. Similarly, when it became apparent that states were nowhere near meeting the key requirement of the No Child Left Behind education law – that all children be up to speed in math and reading by 2014 – the Obama administration offered them waivers, but only if they came up with reform plans that were approved by the federal government. Republicans charged that the administration was usurping the power of Congress.
Still, the result is more breathing room for schools, their teachers and the students they serve.
Romney has spoken out in favor of some of the reform proposals that Obama wants to put into place, notably providing incentives for charter schools and better teacher and student evaluations. So, look for those proposals to stay no matter who wins the White House.