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."
2012 -- Barack Obama
U.S. President Barack Obama waves to supporters following his victory speech on election night in Chicago, Illinois on November 6, 2012. (JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images)
2008 -- Barack Obama
Nov. 4, 2008: U.S. president-elect Barack Obama waves at his supporters during his election night victory rally at Grant Park in Chicago. (JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images)
2004 -- George W. Bush
In this Nov. 3, 2004 file photo, President George W. Bush and first lady Laura Bush salute and wave during an election victory rally at the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center in Washington. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak, File)
2000 -- George W. Bush
U.S. Republican presidential candidate and Texas Governor George W. Bush casts his vote in Austin, Texas on November 7, 2000. (PAUL RICHARDS/AFP/Getty Images)
1996 -- Bill Clinton
President Bill Clinton, wife Hillary and daughter Chelsea wave to supporters in front of the Old State House during an election night celebration in Little Rock, Ark. on Tuesday, Nov. 5, 1996. (AP Photo/David Longstreath)
1992 -- Bill Clinton
Bill Clinton and Al Gore celebrate in Little Rock, Arkansas after winning in a landslide election on November 3, 1992. (AP Photo)
1988 -- George H. W. Bush
President-elect George Bush and his family celebrate his victory on November 8,1988 at the Brown Convention Center in Houston. (WALT FRERCK/AFP/Getty Images) <em><strong>CORRECTION:</strong> An earlier version of this slide was titled "George W. Bush." It has been fixed.</em>
1984 -- Ronald Reagan
President Ronald Reagan gives a thumbs-up to supporters at the Century Plaza Hotel in Los Angeles as he celebrates his re-election, Nov. 6, 1984, with first lady Nancy Reagan at his side. (AP Photo/File)
1980 -- Ronald Reagan
President-elect Ronald Reagan and wife Nancy wave to well-wishers on Tuesday, Nov. 4, 1980 at Century Plaza Hotel in Los Angeles after his election victory. (AP Photo)
1976 -- Jimmy Carter
Democratic presidential candidate Jimmy Carter embraces his wife Rosalynn after receiving the final news of his victory in the national general election on November 2, 1976. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
1972 -- Richard Nixon
U.S. President Richard M. Nixon meets at Camp David, Maryland, on November 13, 1972 to discuss the Vietnam situation with Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger (L) and Maj. Gen. Alexander M. Haig Jr.(R), Deputy Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs. (Photo by AFP PHOTO/NATIONAL ARCHIVE/Getty Images)
1968 -- Richard Nixon
President-elect Richard M. Nixon and his wife, Pat, were a picture of joy at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York, Nov. 6, 1968, as he thanked campaign workers. At left are David Eisenhower, Julie Nixon's fiance, Julie and her sister Tricia at center. (AP Photo)
1964 -- Lyndon Johnson
President Lyndon Johnson proves he's a pretty good cowhand as he puts his horse, Lady B, through the paces of rounding up a Hereford yearling on his LBJ Ranch near Stonewall, Texas, on November 4, 1964. (AP Photo/Bill Hudson)
1960 -- John F. Kennedy
Caroline Kennedy peeps over the shoulder of her father, Senator John F. Kennedy, as he gave her a piggy-back ride November 9, 1960 at the Kennedy residence in Hyannis Port, Mass. It was the first chance president-elect Kennedy had to relax with his daughter in weeks. (AP Photo)
1956 -- Dwight D. Eisenhower
President Dwight D. Eisenhower and Vice President Richard Nixon salute cheering workers and Republicans at GOP election headquarters in Washington, November 7, 1956, after Adlai Stevenson conceded. (AP Photo)
1952 -- Dwight D. Eisenhower
President-elect Dwight Eisenhower and first lady-elect Mamie Eisenhower wave to the cheering, singing crowd in the Grand Ballroom of the Hotel Commodore in New York City on Nov. 5, 1952 after Gov. Adlai Stevenson conceded defeat. (AP Photo/Matty Zimmerman)
1948 -- Harry S. Truman
U.S. President Harry S. Truman holds up an Election Day edition of the Chicago Daily Tribune, which, based on early results, mistakenly announced "Dewey Defeats Truman" on November 4, 1948. The president told well-wishers at St. Louis' Union Station, "That is one for the books!" (AP Photo/Byron Rollins)
1944 -- Franklin D. Roosevelt
President Franklin Roosevelt greets a young admirer as he sits outside his home in Hyde Park, N.Y., on election night, November 7, 1944. Behind him stands his daughter, Mrs. Anna Roosevelt Boettinger and the first lady, Eleanor Roosevelt. (AP Photo)
1940 -- Franklin D. Roosevelt
American President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (1882 - 1945) speaking to a crowd of 25,000 at Madison Square Garden in New York on Nov. 8, 1940, before his sweeping re-election for a third term. (Photo by Fox Photos/Getty Images)
1936 -- Franklin D. Roosevelt
The Republican Governor of Kansas and presidential candidate, Alfred Landon (1887 - 1987) greeting the American President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (1882 - 1945) (seated) prior to the presidential elections. Future United States President Harry S. Truman can been seen in the background. (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images)
1932 -- Franklin D. Roosevelt
Governor Franklin D. Roosevelt of New York at his Hyde Park, N.Y. home November 6, 1932, seen at the conclusion of the arduous months of campaigning following his presidential nomination in Chicago. (AP Photo)
1928 -- Herbert Hoover
President-elect Herbert Hoover is seated at a table with wife, Lou, and joined by other family members on Nov. 9, 1928. Standing from left: Allan Hoover; son; Margaret Hoover, with husband, Herbert Hoover, Jr.,at right. Peggy Ann Hoover, daughter of Herbert Hoover Jr., sits with her grandmother. (AP Photo)
1924 -- Calvin Coolidge
U.S. President Calvin Coolidge and first lady Grace Coolidge are shown with their dog at the White House portico in Washington, D.C., on Nov. 5, 1924. (AP Photo)
1920 -- Warren Harding
Senator Warren Harding, with wife Florence and his father George, shown on Aug. 27, 1920. (AP Photo)
1916 -- Woodrow Wilson
Surrounded by crowds, President Woodrow Wilson throws out the first ball at a baseball game in Washington in this 1916 photo. (AP Photo)
1912 -- Woodrow Wilson
Woodrow Wilson (1856 - 1924), the future American president, casts his vote while Governor of New Jersey, on Nov. 14, 1912. (Photo by Topical Press Agency/Getty Images)