By Stephanie Simon
WASHINGTON Aug 26 On the campaign trail during
the past week, President Barack Obama talked a lot about
Making a bid for young voters and their parents, Obama
accused Republican rival Mitt Romney of planning to slash aid to
college students. Romney hit back by noting that Obama, a
Democrat, has not been able to rein in the soaring cost of
But the differences between the two candidates on education
policy extend far deeper than a war of sound bites over college
costs. In an echo of their broader philosophical divide, Romney
and Obama split sharply over what role the private sector should
play in the U.S. education system.
"There are very, very meaningful differences in philosophy,"
said Phillip Handy, a businessman who was chairman of the
Florida Board of Education for six years and now advises Romney
on the subject.
Romney seeks to encourage - with federal subsidies, when
necessary - robust participation from the private sector in
teaching American kids and training workers. He would use public
dollars to enroll more children in private schools; keep federal
aid flowing to private, for-profit colleges; and pay private
banks to take over part of the federal student loan program.
Obama, by contrast, has sought to expand government's role
He has directed billions of dollars in federal funds to
states that adopted his vision of a revamped kindergarten
through 12th grade curriculum, with more emphasis on
standardized testing. He has secured billions more in public
funding to help states avert teacher layoffs.
And in higher education, Obama has expanded federal student
aid and cracked down on for-profit colleges that he says leave
students with too much debt and too few job prospects.
Here is a look at a few key disputes over education policy:
CHARTERS AND VOUCHERS
In K-12 education, Obama has gone much further than his
allies in the teachers unions would like in embracing charter
schools, which are publicly funded but privately managed, in
some cases by for-profit companies.
Obama has pushed states to allow more charter schools to
open a nd has directed federal funds to some of the most
successful, including a five-year, $50 million grant to the KIPP
network of charter schools.
But Romney, the presumptive Republican nominee, would go
He has called for redirecting up to $25 billion in federal
aid to help schools serve disabled and impoverished children.
Under his plan, up to 12 million needy students nationwide
could use the funds to pay tuition at private or religious
schools or to enroll in charter schools that might not otherwise
have the resources to serve them. Romney would press states to
lift all caps restricting the number of charter and online
schools. And he would expand federal funding for charter
management companies, with the aim of helping the best grow
Romney also has cited as a model the aggressive education
overhaul in Louisiana. Under Republican Governor Bobby Jindal,
the state has laid out a plan to shift tax dollars from public
schools to private-sector entrepreneurs and industry trade
groups that design courses for K-12 students.
Romney argues that the public school system is broken and in
desperate need of new ideas and new energy from the private
sector. He is clear about whom he believes is to blame: A
campaign policy paper calls public education "an antiquated
system controlled to a disturbing degree by the unions
Teachers unions, predictably, have rallied to the Democratic
president. They dislike some of his policies, such as his push
to rate teachers largely by their students' progress on
standardized tests. Still, they are expected to spend millions
supporting his campaign.
"Do we believe that this administration has put too much of
a focus on testing and competition? Yes," Randi Weingarten,
president of the American Federation of Teachers, told a recent
But Weingarten also credited the president's stimulus bill
with saving the jobs of 300,000 school employees across the
nation. More recently, Obama requested - but failed to get - $55
billion from Congress to prevent some 320,000 teacher layoffs
and repair crumbling schools.
In higher education, the candidates are sharply divided over
the value of private, for-profit colleges that offer career
training and degree programs in everything from dental hygiene
to wind turbine repair to video game art.
Romney has touted for-profit colleges as vital players in
higher education. Their very presence, he argues, spurs
competition, keeps costs down and expands access to higher
education for millions of young adults and mid-career workers
looking to shift to a new field.
Obama, however, has accused the industry of promising too
much and delivering too little. Too often, he says, recruiters
enroll students who do not have a realistic chance of getting a
degree or landing a job in their chosen field - and who gain
little from the programs except mountains of debt.
In a speech to veterans this spring, Obama accused private,
for-profit colleges of trying to "hoodwink" and "swindle"
military families eligible for financial aid under the G.I.
The administration has sought to crack down on abuses by
pulling federal aid from colleges that fail to produce enough
graduates who find "gainful employment." A federal judge last
month invalidated part of that regulation; the administration is
still considering its response.
Romney has said he would repeal the regulation altogether.
Romney advisers say he also would push for repeal of a
federal law that aims to ensure that for-profit colleges do not
get all their revenue from federal student loans, but attract at
least some students willing to pay the tuition out of pocket.
Calling for-profit colleges a good deal for students, Romney
has campaigned several times on their campuses. Industry leaders
have contributed heavily to his campaign. Bill Heavener, the CEO
of Full Sail University, a for-profit college in Florida, is a
top Romney fundraiser and donor.
The industry's trepidation about Obama comes through in a
recent poll of influential players in the education world
conducted by Whiteboard Advisors, a consulting firm.
Asked how concerned for-profit colleges should be about a
second Obama term, 38 percent expressed strong concern - and
another 21 percent checked the box labeled "Panic!"
UNDER ROMNEY, PELL CUTS LIKELY
Romney's selection of Ryan as his running mate has added a
wrinkle to the debate over education policy.
The sweeping budget plan that Ryan has laid out - and that
Romney has endorsed in principle - would make deep cuts in
discretionary domestic spending, including education.
Ryan has not spelled out exactly how his budget axe would
fall, but he has said he would cut the number of students
eligible for Pell Grants, which help pay college tuition.
In a new ad, Obama accuses the Republican ticket of planning
to cut college aid for millions. Another ad, produced by the
Democratic National Committee, ridicules Romney for telling
young voters that his best advice on affording college is to
"shop around" for a good deal and borrow from their parents if
Romney and Ryan say that the easy availability of federal
grants and loans drives up the cost of college for everyone -
and has turned into a de facto entitlement. "America needs a new
normal," Romney declares in his education policy paper.
Political pundits say they expect education policy disputes
to pop up before the Nov. 6 election because the topic
encapsulates the candidates' divergent views on the role of
As Fredrick Hess, a political scientist at the conservative
American Enterprise Institute, put it: "Education may well end
up being used as Exhibit A."