THE BLOG
04/09/2007 05:35 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Presidential Candidates on Education: The Republicans

The future of public education is a major national issue.

The No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) is, if nothing else, a hugely controversial piece of sweeping legislation. The National Education Association, the nation's largest union, containing about 3.2 million members, states on their website: "NEA strongly supports the stated goals of the law -- to raise student learning, close achievement gaps, and ensure that every child is taught by a highly qualified teacher. But, simply put, the law is not working."

If the 3.2 million people who spend their working lives trying to implement a law say that that law is not working, perhaps the lawmakers should listen.

Two of the top Republican presidential candidates (Rudy Giuliani and Mitt Romney) openly intertwine the issues of education and civil rights. But even for lawmakers who somehow evince no humanistic interest in education, the dollars and cents should grab their attention.

The United States spends about $500 billion every year on public education with about $67.2 billion of that enormous sum coming from the federal government, and most of that ($57.5 billion) in discretionary appropriations. The total spent annually on public education in America is greater than the gross domestic products of Portugal, Hungary, and the Czech Republic--combined.

The president's 2008 budget recognizes, "...three key issues that are on the minds of many Americans: the quality and cost of their children's education, access to affordable health care, and our Nation's dependence on foreign sources of energy from unstable parts of the world." Unfortunately, President Bush's actions quickly contradicted his bold rhetoric. Two months ago, the Boston Globe reported on the president's proposal for "deep cuts to federal healthcare, education, and transportation programs, searching for new money in the federal budget to pay for increasingly costly defense programs and the war in Iraq."

Clearly, Americans cannot look to President Bush for substantive, progressive action on the major issue of improving education. The president says it's important, but he does nothing to respond to the voices of teachers, students, parents, and principals about life on the ground in American public schools.

Since we are forced to look to the future to hope for executive leadership on education, I decided to visit the websites of front-running presidential candidates from both parties to see how, in their own words, they envision education as a national issue. Here, I will examine Republicans Rudy Giuliani, John McCain, Mitt Romney, and Sam Brownback. Next, I'll tackle Democrats Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, John Edwards, and Bill Richardson. The italicized words are reprinted from the candidates' websites; the non-italicized are my own.

RUDY GIULIANI

Former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani's presidential committee website provides a few lines on each of the candidate's main issues. For education:

"As Mayor, Rudy Giuliani worked to reform the nation's largest public school system, with over 1 million school children. He increased school funding and hired new teachers, while insisting on reforms that ended social promotion, abolished principal tenure, and created a Charter School Fund. Rudy is also a strong supporter of school choice, believing that it is one of the great civil rights issues of our time."

First of all, social promotion has not ended in New York City, and nor should it. The practice of social promotion involves moving a child up to the next grade, even if he has not passed the standardized tests. Opponents of social promotion aim to take the decision to promote or hold back a child out of his teacher and principal's hands, thus endorsing a one-size-fits-all vision of growing up. Of course academic proficiency is crucial, but this blanket policy kicks many struggling students when they are down.

One fourth-grade student I taught in the Bronx, Manolo (link to my prior post, Bush's Alamo: Public Schools) lost a year of school when his mother died of AIDS. I could see Manolo's interest in learning and his desire to move forward, despite his low skills. Being held back would have crushed his blossoming excitement for school. If Giuliani had his way, Manolo would have never made it past fourth grade.

Giuliani should know better about the empty promise of school choice than to trumpet it as a civil rights champion. In Jonathan Kozol's latest book, The Shame of the Nation, the author quotes Harvard professor Gary Orfield, "Choice, left to itself, will only increase stratification. Nothing in the way choice systems actually work favors class or racial integration." Inner-city parents who are told that they can pull their child out of their dysfunctional, racially segregated school often find the reality is that their "school choices" are limited to other dysfunctional, racially segregated schools. What civil rights champion could possibly support a system that actually works that way? School choice is an issue that needs to be plumbed, not trumpeted and enshrined as a talking point.

JOHN MCCAIN

Senator John McCain's website for his presidential candidacy bafflingly makes zero mention of education, so one can only infer his silence on the subject indicates that he does not see it as a major issue. I hate to cherry pick, but while his website has nothing to say about the crisis of American public schools, there is space for this passage:

John McCain opposes restrictions on so-called "assault rifles" and voted consistently against such bans. Most recently he opposed an amendment to extend a ban on 19 specific firearms, and others with similar characteristics.

McCain's Senate site has a link to his views on education, but that page is empty save for a handful press releases which haven't been updated since November 2002.

Senator McCain is interested, however, in the student vote, evidenced by his MySpace profile, created in February 2007.

MITT ROMNEY

Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney gives the most ink to education out of the Republican candidates reviewed in this post. On the pull-down menu of "Issues" on his presidential committee website, "Defeating the Jihadists" is first, "Education" is tenth and last. The site reads:

Today's schools are falling further and further behind world standards. It is time to raise the bar on education by making teaching a true profession, measuring progress, providing a focus on math and science, and involving parents from the beginning of a child's school career.

Governor Romney: "We cannot continue to have an excellence gap with the rest of the world and intend to remain the economic superpower and military superpower of the planet. That's just not going to happen," Romney said. "We're in a position where unless we take action, we'll end up being the France of the 21st century: a lot of talk, but not a lot of strength behind it in terms of economic capability." (AP, November 16, 2005)

Governor Romney: "If we are going to compete in the global economy, we have to set our education goals higher." (AP, May 16, 2005)

Governor Romney: "It's going to take teachers, superintendents and parents talking to their legislators saying yes, we want more money of course ... but we also want changes in the way our schools are managed. We want our principals to have the ability to manage their schools." (AP, January 27, 2005)

Governor Romney: "At some point, I think America -- and, importantly, the minority communities -- are going to say, 'it's time to split with our friends, the unions and the Democratic Party, and put our kids first here.' Unequal educational opportunity is the civil rights issue of our time." (Tulsa World, March 7, 2006)

I don't see a coherent view for progress in these quotes. In the first two statements, Romney takes a mysterious pot shot at France while ostensibly claiming that America needs to educate its next generations of economic earners. In the third, by supporting more autonomy for principals, Romney appears in line with the standard-bearing Republican ethos of less federal government control. This, if examined deeper, would be at odds with the rigid models of accountability currently in place under No Child Left Behind.

In the puzzling last statement, Romney lashes blame for poor education upon minority communities for choosing the wrong friends--Democrats and unions. He slips in this partisan jab alongside a claim of recognition that there is a fundamental denial of civil rights occurring daily in our country. I read it as some kind of surreal joke that Romney would suggest that the Republican Party has historically been the authentic worker for civil rights, but minorities have denied themselves the progress they could have made by errantly siding with Democrats and unions.

I am skeptical of Romney's will to do that brave and bruising work it would take to reverse the civil rights injustices inherent in our current system of public education.

SAM BROWNBACK

The Kansas senator supports the importance of public education on his Senate site:

Our Kansas youth are our greatest resource... In order to prepare our next generation of leaders, it is imperative that we provide our State, local school districts, and schools with the tools necessary to educate our most precious citizens. I believe it is essential that we do not pass laws that burden local schools and school districts with unnecessary red tape. Kansas remains a leader in the education of our nation's children. I will continue to promote policies that empower our state to continue to address the needs of our students.

In 2005, the Kansas Board of Education may not have lived up to Brownback's claim as a "leader in the education of our nation's children" when it voted to "redefine science" to include the anti-evolution theory of intelligent design. Janet Waugh, a board member lamented, " We're becoming a laughingstock of not only the nation, but of the world..."

Brownback's presidential committee website lists "teacher" as one of the professions Brownback has held, and said the following about education:

When we ignore poorly performing schools, we also ignore every student in those schools, thereby allowing an achievement gap to persist. It is imperative that we close the achievement gap and provide our nation's students with a productive learning environment that challenges and encourages intellectual stimulation. I believe that providing for choice in education is beneficial to student achievement. For years now, we have seen studies that prove school choice programs, such as the new Opportunity Scholarships recently implemented in the District of Columbia, have a drastic and positive impact on students--especially minority students. By supporting such initiatives, we will be ensuring that more students have access to a high quality education, which means that they will have a better chance of success in not only reaching college, but flourishing in life.

In short, Senator Brownback believes that reshuffling and scholarships will provide more motivation and access for minority students. There is no hint or mention of the fact that minority students are trapped in a neglectful system in which they typically receive less access to preschool, attend many old, dilapidated, segregated school buildings with less experienced teachers, receive less funding per pupil, and are silently strangled by paternalistic No Child Left Behind legislation that forces them into a poisonous culture of high-stakes testing to meet an impossible and ill-advised goal.

CONCLUSION

It may be an uncomfortable truth that American public schools are not sufficiently educating young generations, but it is one that must be faced. In my view, the front-running Republican candidates (Giuliani, McCain, Romney, Brownback) proffer hollow and uninspired ideas for education reform: school choice (one segregated, under-funded school or another), scholarships for a blessed few (leaving many others behind), and more autonomy for principals (but maintaining the same suffocating, pie-in-the-sky NCLB federal proficiency goals on standardized tests).

You cannot cut a check and fix the achievement gap in America. If civil rights are a real goal, which the citizenry, regardless of affiliation, must demand it be, then the Republican field is grievously lacking both the will and the vision to enact positive change. I will dance in the streets the day they prove me wrong.

Next post, the Democrats.