Romney, Obama Surrogates Debate Education Policy

During the course of a political debate, it is sometimes hard for candidates to go into depth on any single issue, but Michelle Rhee is frustrated that education received so little time in the first debate. Speaking to Huffington Post, Rhee felt the 15 minutes dedicated to the subject didn’t allow either President Barack Obama or Republican presidential Candidate Mitt Romney to do anything but skim the surface and remain on “very high level.” Like many voters, Rhee would like to see more substance.

Substance was the point of the day during the much less-publicized debate between the candidates’ surrogates who, with their background in education, were able to get into the nitty gritty of educational policy. Jon Schnur, the co-founder of America Achieves and New Leaders for New Schools, was there to represent President Obama while Phil Handy, the former chairman of the Florida State Board of Education and CEO of Strategic Industries, was standing in for Governor Romney. The debate, which lasted 90 minutes, was held on the campus of the Teachers College at Columbia University and was moderated by the school’s president Susan Fuhrman.

Despite the fact that the two candidates were closely aligned on the issues of school choice — and both have voiced strong support for charter schools — according to Kathryn Baron of EdSource.org, the focus of the debate was their disagreements.

And there were many. A major rift that occupied the first portion of the discussion was the issue of vouchers. For the Romney campaign, vouchers form the cornerstone of the education reform agenda. The ticket believes that the optimum system to fund education would give money directly to the family and allow them to make a decision about where and how their children are educated.

In a white paper, Romney has proposed a voucher system that would disburse the $25 billion in federal Title I funds for low-income students and IDEA funds for students with disabilities directly to the students’ families to spend at the school of their choosing, including other public schools, charters, and private schools. “We think there needs to be some disruption in the system and choice is part of that,” said Handy.

Schnur pointed out that such a system would be disadvantageous to children from low-income families since it would provide them with too little money to cover tuition at most good private schools, closing to them this academic avenue without providing a meaningful alternative. Instead, Obama favors an approach that would force underperforming Title I schools to implement drastic turnaround plans.

During the course of his presidency, Obama was stymied in his efforts to have the No Child Left Behind Act rewritten, forcing him to ultimately bypass it by having the U.S. Department of Education issue waivers to the states who wanted to implement their own accountability systems. Handy expressed disagreement with this approach, saying that doing so meant taking a step back.

Handy said that letting states set their own accountability standards had led to “racially defining proficiency,” and is setting education back to what former President George W. Bush called the “soft bigotry of low expectations.” An analysis by Education Week of state goals under waivers found a number of them have set “different expectations for different subgroups of students.” For example, Minnesota is requiring 82 percent proficiency in 11th grade math for white students, but just 62 percent proficiency for black students.

Handy reiterated that Romney’s plans to balance the budget didn’t include cutting education funding — although there were no plans to boost it, either. Like the candidate he was representing, Handy didn’t provide details on how the this commitment would square with Romney’s support for the Paul Ryan budget plan that would cut domestic spending by 20%.