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Where's Education in the Republican Candidates' Slugfest?

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Through months of campaigning and 18 debates, the Republican presidential candidates have limned a range of issues -- from taxation and corporate personhood to abortion and gay marriage, even open marriage. Economic concerns have predictably loomed large, and of course we want to know if they'd launch a strike against Iran. But how about their views on public education?

With No Child Left Behind being overhauled and nationwide school testing scandals and teacher accountability measures in the news, K-12 public schooling is an issue that many care about deeply. So, as a public service, here is a brief synopsis of the education platforms, such as they are, of the Republican candidates, gleaned from their official Web sites and news reports.

Newt Gingrich: In addition to Gingrich's recent eyebrow-raising statements about employing school children as janitors in their schools, he has other ideas on education, which he elaborates as "A 21st Century Learning System" on his campaign website. The Gingrich system favors parent choice, which means no limits on charter schools or home schooling and no teacher unions to muck things up. Merit pay and no tenure for teachers, and a state-created "rigorous standard that allows every student everywhere to master the skills they will need to be competitive." What's not to like about rigor?

Gingrich would shrink the federal Department of Education, reducing it to a collector of data and research and turn most of the control over schools to local districts. Schools can design their own curricula -- with state approval. And the erstwhile professor provocatively calls for every student to learn to read, "and much of what they read should reinforce American civilization." Presumably, that could include such soon-to-be classics as Gingrich's own books, like Pearl Harbor: A Novel of December 8th or Rediscovering God in America.

Mitt Romney: The man from Bain, who attended elite private schools, stands out for the complete absence of any specific educational agenda on his campaign Web site. His "Plan for Jobs and Economic Growth" mentions education fleetingly: "From preschool to PhD, America must have the best education system. If we want to turn things around, and for our economy to bloom in the future, we need an absolute focus on educational excellence." But that's about it.

In the past, Romney was for eliminating the fed ed department, but changed his mind. In his prior presidential run, he said he supported No Child Left Behind and its accountability and testing mandates, but said states need flexibility in meeting testing and achievement standards--which is exactly what the Obama administration decided to do. He supports charter schools and opposes limits on their proliferation.

Romney's proxy on education is Phil Handy, a Florida financier whom the Orland Sentinel described as a "campaign rainmaker." Handy was a three-time Jeb Bush campaign chairman, and the state's Board of Education chairman for six years. Romney last October named Handy co-chair of both his Florida Advisory Committee and his National Education Policy Committee, which apparently has not done much that is newsworthy.

Rick Santorum: The "true conservative," as Santorum calls himself, doesn't specifically focus on U.S. public schools in his platform plank called, "Restoring America's Greatness Through Educational Freedom And Opportunity."

Mostly, Santorum believes in anything-but-traditional public schools. He especially likes home schooling -- his seven children have been home schooled. He believes education is the responsibility of consumers -- the parents -- who have the "right to direct the upbringing and education of their children with local school systems supporting, as desired." His crazy-quilt, avant garde approach to schooling got his family into hot water and headlines back in 2004 when a school board member in Penn Hills went public with the fact that Santorum's family was claiming local residency when they'd actually moved years earlier to Virginia. The Santorums had enrolled five of their kids in a Pennsylvania online charter school and got the Penn Hills district to pay for it -- to the tune of about $72,000, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. The Santorums yanked their kids out of the Pennsylvania cyber school and were not required to repay any of the districts costs.

Santorum is a booster of charters and online learning and would remove any constraints to increasing them. Common core curricula are okay, as long as they are not forced on any school. The fed role should be limited to civil rights protections of disabled students, enabling research and promoting equality of opportunity. No mention of federal funding of schools. The problem with schools, which he doesn't identify, can only be solved at the state and local levels. Federal legislation won't work. However, Santorum used to think federal legislation was appropriate at the local school level when he was a senator. His now-infamous amendment to No Child Left Behind aimed to encourage public school science classes to teach controversies about such theories as evolution. But that was then.

Ron Paul: The libertarian Texan claims the mantle of "home schooling champion" on his campaign Web site and that means he thinks the feds should mostly get out of the way and let parents take charge of kids' education. Paul doesn't have any ideas for fixing public schools; he believes the government's most useful role is to give tax credits for home schooling and make sure that home schooling remains a "practical alternative" for families. Enough said.

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