WASHINGTON -- For the last year, education advocates have been trying to get the subject of America's beleaguered public schools onto the agenda of the presidential election. Aside from a few mentions in the debates, the conversation has been pretty one-sided, with President Barack Obama consistently emphasizing the need to invest in education on the campaign trail -- and little mention of the subject from Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney in his own stump speech.
That appears to have changed in the final 72 hours leading up to the election, with Romney incorporating a few key lines on education into his "closing argument" speech in a last-minute bid to sway votes from women and Latinos -- voters who prioritize education but have favored Obama throughout the presidential race.
“You know that if the president is re-elected, he will say every good thing he can about education, but in the final analysis, he will do what his largest campaign supporters -- the public-sector unions -- insist upon," Romney said while unveiling his closing argument in Wisconsin on Friday. "And your kids will have the same schools with the same results.”
“When I am president, I will be a voice of the children and their parents. There is no union for the PTA,” he continued, a line he has since repeated at each campaign rally in the final days. “I will give parents the information they need to know if their school is failing, and the choice they need to pick the school where their child can succeed.”
While this is the first time Romney has included this critique in his stump address, the framing does reflect his attitude in previous speeches. At a fundraiser in May, before Romney's only major education address this cycle at the Chamber of Commerce, he similarly sought to paint Obama as a union apologist.
"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 the fundraiser.
"The president can't have it both ways: He can't talk up reform, while indulging the groups that block it," he added later, in the speech on education. "He can't be the voice of disadvantaged public school kids, and the protector of special interests."
But Romney's analysis ignores the nuances of Obama's record. The refrain of putting children first is the mantra of a movement known as "education reform," an initiative that includes many Democrats and counts Obama among its biggest cheerleaders. Until recently, the unions' desires dominated Democratic education policies, but in 2007, the group Democrats for Education reform formed, creating a base within the party to advocate for issues that are often thorny for unions: teacher quality, school accountability, charter schools and using students' standardized test scores to partiallly formulate teachers ratings.
In reality, the Obama administration -- and campaign -- has tried to delicately balance these two, often competing interests: the unions -- Democratic supporters known for their ground game -- and the reformers. A few hundred billion dollars of stimulus funding put 450,000 teachers back to work, the U.S. Education Department calculates, supporting a union priority of growing its ranks and keeping class sizes small; on the other hand, the Race to the Top competition angered unions by encouraging the growth of charter schools and evaluations based on test scores.
Romney has latched onto the union-appeasing side of this equation, hammering Obama in the final presidential debate for using federal funds to hire teachers, but adding, “I love teachers,” several times. The National Education Association, the nation’s largest teachers union, responded to those remarks by mocking Romney’s purported affection for teachers as part of its Get Out the Vote efforts. Obama, too, has repeatedly raised the issue of Romney’s opposition to hiring more teachers when attacking the GOP nominee over education policy.
In response to Romney’s latest riff on education, NEA President Dennis Van Roekel told The Huffington Post on Sunday that the Republican candidate “just doesn’t get” education reform.
"Education is key to the nation’s success and helping us solidify the economic recovery of the last few years," Van Roekel said in a statement. "President Obama gets that, it’s why he’s supported education programs from early childhood through making college more affordable. Mitt Romney just doesn’t get that true education reform takes all stakeholders -- educators, parents, and community -- working together for students. Being divisive and providing kids with only the education they can afford hurts all of us in the end."