Making the grade
Where Obama went wrong on education – and what Romney needs to say

US Department of Education

President Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan Speak to the Business Roundtable in Washington, D.C., on March 13, 2009.

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  • While Obama’s education efforts have featured good ideas, he has also been guilty of troubling hubris and undisciplined policymaking

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  • How @MittRomney should consider correcting President Obama’s education missteps @AEIeducation

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  • It's time for @MittRomney to speak up on how he can correct Obama's missteps on education standards, federal policy & innovation

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Given concerns about the economy, jobs and health care, education policy isn’t likely to be a make-or-break issue in November’s presidential election. But it matters a great deal, nonetheless.

As was the case for George W. Bush in 2000 and Barack Obama in 2008, Mitt Romney’s stance on education will powerfully color how Americans view his broader domestic agenda. Romney’s been largely silent on the issue. But now’s the time for him to speak. A good place for Romney to start is by explaining what Obama has gotten right during the past four years — and then pointing out precisely where the president got things wrong.

First, the good. The president and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan have broadened the Bush administration’s school reform agenda, bringing more attention to teacher evaluation, teacher pay, charter schooling and higher education. They’ve used their bully pulpit to argue the need to spend school dollars more intelligently and challenge colleges to control their costs. And they’ve acknowledged the need for flexibility when it comes to some of the burdensome elements of the No Child Left Behind Act, while singing the praises of innovation more generally.

On these counts, credit is due. But while Obama’s education efforts have featured good ideas and terrific rhetoric, he has also been guilty of the same troubling hubris and undisciplined policymaking that have characterized much of his administration.

First, his reform playbook has relied on a prescriptive, sprawling role for Washington bureaucrats. While his marquee Race to the Top program sounded sexy from a distance, it was in reality a 19-point federal checklist in which states and their big-dollar consultants competed to see who could most enthusiastically promise to toe the president’s agenda. (All of the dozen winners, it should be noted, now lag behind on implementing their pledged reforms.) In dangling much-needed flexibility on NCLB in the form of waivers, Secretary Duncan bizarrely opted to require that states adopt various Obama priorities — which are found nowhere in the law itself — to get relief. This novel constitutional strategy sets a troubling precedent of unbounded executive authority.

Second, even when it comes to  the putatively “state-led, voluntary” push for common math and reading standards, the president has been unable to resist the urge to get Uncle Sam involved. Instead of letting states implement the reforms under their own power, they’ve tried to pick winners and losers: rewarding Race to the Top applicants with money for promising to adopt the Common Core standards, berating South Carolina for expressing second thoughts about the standards and spending $350 million in federal funds to design tests and materials built on the standards. All of this helped turn a sensible effort into a heated debate about federal overreach.

Third, for all the administration’s handsome talk about the need to do more with less, the whole of the Obama school reform strategy has rested on pledges of huge new spending. The president’s recipe for community colleges? About $10 billion or so. For school “turnarounds”? Another $3.5 billion. In fact, the much-heralded Race to the Top program itself was funded with $4.35 billion in crumbs from Obama’s more than $100 billion in education-related stimulus borrowing that mostly went to propping up the status quo.

And while the Obama team deserves credit for supporting charter schools and “innovation,” it has also shown a troubling hostility to dynamic new problem-solvers in education. The administration has essentially declared war on for-profit educational providers, setting out draconian new regulations for colleges while restricting their participation in the K-12 “investing in innovation” fund. One tiny problem: It’s precisely the for-profits that have shown the most willingness to rethink old models, hustle to serve more students, find cost savings, and develop and best use new technologies. The president has also demonstrated hostility towards school voucher programs, doing his best to strangle the Washington Scholarship Fund (despite its positive results and passionate local support) and to dismiss major voucher initiatives in Indiana and Louisiana.

The president has done enough right to win plaudits from the likes of the Wall Street Journal, Washington Post and conservative New York Times columnist David Brooks. And Romney is going to have trouble beating him on education. Yet Obama’s missteps are serious enough that explaining them — and how a Romney administration would correct them — would illuminate a picture of smarter, more humble domestic leadership.

Frederick M. Hess is director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute.

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