Romney and Ryan not on the same ticket when it comes to education reform

This is commentary from education blogger Laura Waters of NJ Left Behind.

GOP delegates from around the country will gather in Tampa on Monday to anoint the ticket of Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan. Conventional wisdom is that education issues of the moment – school choice, accountability, teacher quality – will get little attention from Republicans more interested in scarfing down the red meat of Obamacare and deficit reduction. But a keynote speech on Tuesday by our very own Governor Chris Christie and a just-announced education offensive from the Obama campaign could change that menu. Maybe, just maybe, education reform will get its place in the Tampa sun.

What’s the Romney/Ryan education platform anyway? It’s sort of hard to tell, for several reasons: first, the campaign and debate season has been light educational issues. Second, Romney has a tendency to “evolve,” which makes it hard to discern firm positions. (His official “education platform” is pretty vague, although he just announced that he’d create vouchers for economically-disadvantaged children and kids with disabilities).

Lastly, the choice of Paul Ryan as VP nominee has wedded Romney to a far more conservative partner, muddling the usual soft shoe – “I support federal initiatives like No Child Left Behind (NCLB) and Race to the Top (RTTT)” but “I’ll make the Department of Education a heck of a lot smaller” — into a mire of cognitive dissonance.

F. Scott Fitzgerald said, “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” So maybe Romney’s just really smart. Or maybe it’s the old soft shoe.

Gov. Romney has some history of supporting top-down government initiatives, including those in education. For example, he was once a supporter of NCLB (although now, notes Education Week, he said he would “dismantle the accountability system at the heart of the law”). Last year he praised Obama’s Ed. Sec. Arne Duncan and the Pres. Obama’s education reform initiatives. His campaign staff says that he is supportive of the Common Core State Standards, a new nationally-set K-12 curriculum. All three programs increase the government’s role in setting academic standards for states and promote an education reform agenda.

In turn, these policy positions limit state and local control. However, that stance is anathema to the many conservative Republicans choreographing next week’s convention, not to mention his choice for VP.

Congressman Paul Ryan is, in fact, among the naysayers to top-down education policy. His highly-touted budget, which Romney supports, would slash $115 billion from the Department of Education – about an 18 percent cut — and would result in 2 million fewer children enrolled in Head Start. Title 1 programs that support poor children could get a $2.7 billion cut and funding for kids with disabilities would get slashed by $2.7 billion. Pell grants, widely used by college students, would see substantial cuts also. (See this awesome DNC ad, “Better Shop Around.”)

In addition, Ryan expresses disdain for both NCLB and RTTT.

Gov. Romney’s sleight-of-feet and Ryan’s rock-hard anti-fed stance will get even more curious on Tuesday night when Gov. Christie makes his Keynote Address at 10:30. p.m. Remember, a great deal of Christie’s soaring national reputation is due to specific education reforms enacted during the last three years. Those reforms are all linked to top-down initiatives and diminished local control.

NJ is a proud signatory of the Common Core, the set of nationally-set curricular standards. The NJ DOE shows great deference towards NCLB, and was (finally!) awarded an RTTT grant that requires intense focus, per Pres. Obama’s agenda, on poor students from chronically failing districts. The recently-signed tenure reform law, much touted by Gov. Christie, standardizes teacher evaluations and links them to the NJ DOE database. Other Christie initiatives that minimize local control include state-set salary caps for superintendents, increases in state testing, and the 2% cap on local district budgets.

Christie’s educational agenda is about as far from Romney/Ryan as Massachusetts is from Wisconsin.

This educational dissonance between the GOP keynoter and the GOP leadership is further underlined by the news this week that Pres. Obama is embarking on an “offense on education.” Yesterday in Las Vegas (according to Talking Points Memo) he “whipped a cheering crowd into a frenzy,” asking “I have a question for Gov. Romney. How many teachers’ jobs are worth another tax cut for millionaires and billionaires?” Count on the President to emphasize key differences between his own education agenda and the Romney/Ryan ticket. And, therefore, key differences between the Christie education agenda and the Romney/Ryan ticket.

Well, it’s just theater, just the old soft shoe, right? Not really. The role of government in local matters – a key issue for the GOP — is fundamental to the future of public education in America. We may not get any answers on Tuesday night, but there’s nothing wrong with a little sunny illumination.

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Laura Waters is president of the Lawrence Township School Board in Mercer County. She also writes about New Jersey’s public education on her blog NJ Left Behind. Follow her on Twitter @NJleftbehind.

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