In perhaps the most memorable moment of the presidential foreign policy debate, a clearly annoyed Bob Scheiffer interrupted Gov. Romney: "I think we all love teachers." Despite a polarized electorate on nearly every issue of the campaign, you would be hard-pressed to find a person who doesn't love, respect, or, at the very least, appreciate teachers. However, loving teachers does not always translate into the best policies for our education system or our students. As Election Day inches closer, we must keep in mind that our education system will be profoundly changed by the decisions of our president-elect.
At a time when the fragility of the economy threatens our very way of life, it is challenging to look past such a pressing issue. But when I think about the election, I wonder about the outcomes for my students. I wonder if they will be able to attend college in four years -- documented or undocumented. I wonder if they will be able to afford it, or if they will become crippled by debt. I wonder how many of them will complete high school. For them, and millions of other children, their next four years -- their chance at a better life -- begins with education.
Of all the campaign issues, education is certainly the one on which President Obama and Gov. Romney share the most middle ground. Both candidates share a desire to reform the education system. Both candidates support charter schools and stronger teacher evaluation systems. Both candidates believe that No Child Left Behind must be revised and updated. Both candidates agree that the United States must improve its system to become competitive in the global marketplace again. However, at the heart of their ideologies, the two men diverge.
During his first term as president, Obama clearly committed to the process of education reform. Forty-six states submitted reform programs in order to compete for federal grant money as a part of his Race to the Top program. The grant-giving program already shows early signs of promise: improved scores, support from teachers and schools, and reduced discipline problems. At the very least, Race to the Top has begun a dialogue about how to reform our schools. President Obama also increased Pell Grants and made the federal government the direct lender of student loans in order to make college more affordable for low- and middle-income families. But his plans have not been without drawbacks. The Race to the Top program cost more than $5 billion, with some arguing that it is too early to tell if the program has actually been effective. The system of teacher evaluations promoted by Race to the Top became a major point of contention in the Chicago teachers' strike this year. President Obama's programs and policies are only one small step toward improving a failing system; nevertheless, he has demonstrated a commitment to making education more accessible to all students.
While Gov. Romney favors some of President Obama's plans, his path for education reform upon entering the White House does not include clear policies. Generally, Gov. Romney favors less federal government interference in education. Coming from the state of Massachusetts, he has the ability to bring what he learned from the most successful education system in the country to the White House. This could be his most powerful tool to reform the education system -- if he chooses to use it. Gov. Romney prefers to delegate that power onto the states and local governments -- a system that has produced varying results in the last half century. Some states consistently perform well, while others consistently perform poorly, leaving a child's chance at the American Dream dependent on the ZIP code they are born into. Gov. Romney is a strong supporter of merit scholarship programs as well, such as the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship. These programs, while helpful to some students, often do not reach the children who need the most help. While President Obama endorsed the Common Core standards, so that children across the country would receive the same rigorous curriculum, Gov. Romney believes that states should have the right to set their own standards -- unfortunately a process that can become extremely partisan, as seen in Texas in several times over the past few years. Gov. Romney has the knowledge to create a successful education program; the question is whether or not he will use that knowledge in the White House.
"There's really not an excellent education candidate," Tim Callahan, spokesman for the Professional Association of Georgia Educators, commented on the election. Neither man has the perfect answer. Yet as a nation we must consider the crucial choice we make for all children during this election. The next four years of education reform will depend on who becomes the next President of the United States. I encourage every voter to think carefully about what they want for their children. I will be thinking about all 320 of mine.
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