What they’ve said and done on
education in the past, and what they might do about our public schools if
By Allison Sherry
Two months before his 2008 election, Barack Obama addressed a roomful of Ohio
public school teachers, praising their long hours and talking about his
daughters’ starting 2nd and 5th grade. It was a typical Democratic education
speech, with vows of support for early childhood education, for building up
programs that help students from “the day they’re born until the day they
graduate from college.”
Then Obama departed from the usual feel-good talking points. He touted
competition, charter schools, and school choice. “I believe in public schools,
but I also believe in fostering competition within the public schools,” he said.
“And that’s why, as president, I’ll double the funding for responsible charter
That wasn’t an applause line, for sure, but it did serve another purpose: to
position the candidate as a different kind of Democrat, one willing to embrace
ideas from across the aisle and push back against his own teachers union base.
It also put Republicans on notice: Obama wouldn’t be bashful about encroaching
on their territory on education.
Two and a half years later, Republicans are still trying to figure out how to
respond to Obama, a Democratic president with education reform bona fides. To
date, the most prominent leaders of the GOP have either been mute on the topic
of education or heaped praise on the president. Indiana governor Mitch Daniels
lauded the Obama administration and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan in a
speech he made in April 2011: “We need to prepare our young people with the
highest possible preparation wherever they come from, wherever they are headed,”
he said. “[Duncan] is the nation’s champion, along with the president he serves,
of that ideal.”
As the winter primaries get closer, don’t expect much more of that.
The One That Got Away
Republicans began this election season in search of a candidate and a
message. The May withdrawal of Mitch Daniels from the Republican primary race
left the GOP without one of its most visible education leaders. The Midwestern
governor had become a darling among education reformers for making school choice
and quality teaching his top priorities.
In his final State of the State speech in Indianapolis, Daniels said that if
he did nothing else in 2011, he wanted to “hitch his legacy” to education
reform. Watching from the audience that day were students on waiting lists to
get into various charter schools. He urged state lawmakers to create a voucher
program that would allow kids to use public dollars for private school tuition.
He talked for 30 minutes about improving teacher quality. And by the end of the
legislative session, he got just about everything he wanted in a school reform
plan: expansion of charter schools, private school vouchers, and college
scholarships for students who graduate high school early.
But after flirting with a presidential run, Daniels bowed out, leaving to
those still in the running the task of building a GOP education platform.
The Race Is On
After a slow start, the Republican field is finally starting to take shape.
Former governors Mitt Romney and Tim Pawlenty have announced their election
bids, and former GOP house speaker Newt Gingrich is also running. As of June
2011, Representative Michele Bachmann of Minnesota and former Pennsylvania
senator Rick Santorum had entered the race. Republicans await announcements from
Sarah Palin and Texas governor Rick Perry.
In staking out platforms in the coming months for what will likely be a
feisty GOP primary, Republicans face two quandaries regarding education policy:
They need to distinguish their positions from Obama’s centrist education
reforms, and they need to win over the Republican base, fueled by some Tea Party
energy, that will push for the U.S. Department of Education to be dismantled
Former education secretary Margaret Spellings says gaining ground may not be
easy, but it has been done before: by George W. Bush, her former boss.
“I commend President Obama for adopting the GOP playbook and building on the
groundwork that we’ve laid,” said Spellings, currently a consultant in
Washington, D.C. “It’s time for us to develop some new material that pushes even
If Republicans want an advantage, Spellings argues, they need to push choice
and the hold-schools-accountable platform because “that’s safe territory for
Republicans of all stripes,” she said. “Unite Republicans by talking about the
kind of public policy that ties very closely to accountability.”
One likely Republican target is school spending. Days after entering office,
President Obama signed into law the sweeping stimulus bill, which included a
$100 billion bailout of the K–12 system. A year later, the smaller “edujobs”
bill pumped another $10 billion into the schools. While this money was
ostensibly linked to reform via the Race to the Top, there’s very little to show
for this huge influx of federal funds. Most studies show that it merely saved
teachers’ jobs, or kicked layoffs down the road a year or two. In lots of places
where layoffs were not on the table, it allowed school districts to give
teachers raises, at a time when America suffered through the worst unemployment
crisis in a generation.
By pointing at the fat in the education system, GOP candidates could argue,
as Governor Pawlenty did in 2007, that American schools are “costing us a lot of
money and it’s costing them their future.”
Expect to see the candidates applaud governors in New Jersey, Wisconsin, and
Ohio, who took on collective bargaining rights and insisted that money is best
used to reward good teaching for the children’s sake.
“We have built a system…that cares more about the feelings of adults than the
future of children,” said New Jersey Republican governor Chris Christie, widely
expected to run for president in 2016, at the American Enterprise Institute
earlier this year. “Tell me, where else is there a profession with no reward for
excellence and no penalty for failure?”
In a 2011 speech to the Conservative Political Action Conference, Romney
berated Obama for failed economic policies, saying afterward that he’s “seen the
failure of liberal answers before…liberal education policies fail our children
today because they put pensions and privileges for the union bosses above our
Defining the Federal Role
A candidate like Romney or Pawlenty is still going to have to explain to the
Republican base why they’re not going to shutter the U.S. Department of
Education. During the 2010 midterm elections, Tea Party Senate and House
candidates across the country promised on the campaign trail that they would
shut down the U.S. Department of Education and hand control over to state
governments. Many of them are now members of Congress.
A related issue is where to land on the “Common Core” standards, a set of
expectations in reading and math developed by the nation’s governors and state
superintendents, but viewed by many conservatives as a federal plot to take over
“Post-Obamacare, post–Dodd-Frank, in the Tea Party world, Republicans aren’t
interested anymore in a robust federal role in education,” said a senior GOP
Capitol Hill staffer, who could not be named because he is not authorized to
talk to the media. “Bush liked it and talked about it, fine. Now that he’s not
there hitting us over the head with it, we’ll move to empower and trust state
and local officials to make decisions.”
No matter who else enters the race, it is unlikely a newcomer will have a
ready-made education platform. Romney, Bachmann, Pawlenty, Perry, and Gingrich
have all, in their careers, been outspoken on key issues of education policy.
It’s worth considering what each of these (potential) candidates might do, were
he or she to become the nation’s 45th president.
MITT ROMNEY, like many Republican leaders in the 1990s, called for abolishing
the U.S. Department of Education.
Once he became governor of Massachusetts, Romney plotted out a more
sophisticated education platform. He pushed school choice when a
Democratic-controlled state legislature was moving away from it, and extolled
the virtues of No Child Left Behind.
“I’ve taken a position where, once upon a time, I said I wanted to eliminate
the Department of Education…. That’s very popular with the base,” Romney said at
a 2007 Republican debate in South Carolina. “As I’ve been a governor and seen
the impact that the federal government can have holding down the interest of the
teachers unions and instead putting the interests of the kids and the parents
and the teachers first, I see that the Department of Education can actually make
As governor, Romney proposed education reform measures that lifted the state
cap on charter schools and gave principals more power to get rid of ineffective
In his book No Apology: The Case for American Greatness, he darkly
warns about American students’ low achievement in reading and writing. He writes
that money does not play a pivotal role in education quality and achievement,
perhaps a harbinger that Romney’s education-reform platform wouldn’t include new
money, as Obama’s plan did.
“The average amount spent per pupil, adjusted for inflation, rose by 73
percent between 1980 and 2005, and the average class size was reduced by 18
percent,” he wrote. “But during that same period, the educational performance of
our children has hardly budged. Why not?”
In Massachusetts, Romney defended statewide graduation requirement tests,
which started during his first year as governor in 2003. When one mayor declared
he would dole out diplomas even to students who didn’t pass the tests, Romney
threatened to withhold state dollars.
He also defended English immersion after visiting a Boston school where many
students enrolled in bilingual classes had actually been born in the United
If Romney talks education in the next year, he will blend the importance of
accountability and of governing with a stick if needed. He is widely credited
for raising test scores. In his third year as governor, 4th and 8th graders
scored first in the country in math and English (see Figure 1).
It was in education that MICHELE BACHMANN got her political sea legs.
Disappointed in the school work brought home by her foster kids attending public
school, the now Minnesota congresswoman decided to get involved because the
school system didn’t have an “academic foundation,” according to Bloomberg
She started a charter school in the early 1990s, but abruptly resigned from
its board—along with other board members—after the school district accused the
charter of teaching religion in its classrooms.
In 1999, Bachmann ran for Stillwater school board with a platform to dump
Minnesota’s “Profile of Learning,” the state’s graduation standards. It is the
only race the three-term congresswoman has ever lost.
Under a Bachmann presidency, expect the U.S. Department of Education to be
all but shuttered. In 2004, she authored legislation that would remove Minnesota
from the requirements of No Child Left Behind. (It didn’t pass.) In a 2009
letter to constituents posted on her website, Bachmann wrote, “I entered
politics because I want to give my children the incredible educational
experience I received from public schools as a student. No Child Left Behind
must be repealed and control of our education returned to the local level.”
As his eight years as Minnesota’s governor wore on, TIM PAWLENTY’s push
against the teachers union grew stronger and more publicly divisive.
Shortly after his election in 2002, in an impromptu speech to business
leaders, Pawlenty called for tying teacher pay to performance and bringing up
the state’s standards. He also urged state lawmakers to authorize the use of a
transparent growth model to see how well schools are really doing to improve
student achievement. Yet, maybe because teachers union officials were in the
audience, Pawlenty carefully parsed tenure, saying, “Seniority can remain a big
factor, maybe even the main factor, in setting pay scales,” according to news
The speech underscored Pawlenty’s sometimes mixed message to unions
throughout his tenure: I’ll try to work with you. That is until you don’t work
In 2005, Pawlenty passed a Minnesota-wide teacher pay-for-performance plan
called “Q Comp,” which rewards teachers based on evaluations. Though passed by
the state legislature, the plan gave school districts and charter schools the
choice of whether to participate and allows a district to collectively bargain a
pay agreement that looks at professional development, teacher evaluation, and an
alternative salary schedule.
When federal Race to the Top dollars became available, Pawlenty launched a
statewide charter school initiative and moved to hone math and science
instruction in schools. Still, Minnesota lost out, most notably because the
application lacked support from the teachers union. Like all states, Minnesota
had an opportunity to go for the second round of grants, but Pawlenty drew a
line in the sand, saying he would only apply again if the union, and Democrats
in the state legislature, agreed to more reforms.
At the time, Pawlenty also dialed up the rhetoric. The timing may have been
personally fortuitous: He had declared he wasn’t seeking another gubernatorial
term in Minnesota and was flirting with a presidential run. It was good press:
He was out there staking pitch-perfect positions on education reform.
“If they [the teachers unions] don’t buy in and aren’t partners in change,
it’s not going to work,” Pawlenty said at a United Negro College Fund event in
February of 2010. “We have to constructively and gently, or maybe not so gently,
nudge them toward change.”
Texas Governor RICK PERRY, if he runs, is likely to use his own state’s
successes to argue that the federal government should dramatically downsize in
While Perry has been outspoken against the Common Core, he and his education
commissioner have pulled the quality of Texas tests up to a level respected
among education reformers. Test scores among kids of all racial and ethnic
backgrounds are higher in Texas than in Wisconsin, for example, which has fewer
students qualifying for free- and reduced-price lunch.
Though Perry will probably make this point on the campaign trail, he’s not
likely to promise to take over the nation’s schools. On the contrary, he’ll
likely pick up on his recent call to repeal No Child Left Behind and let states
take charge of their education systems. In his book released last year, Fed
Up! Our Fight to Save America from Washington, Perry argues that Washington
has taken power away from states. At a speech in November in Washington, Perry
took aim at two of former President Bush’s signature accomplishments, No Child
Left Behind and the Medicare drug benefit program, saying they were examples of
areas in which Washington need not be.
“Those are both big government but more importantly, they were
Washington-centric,” he told the Dallas Morning News. “One size does
not fit all, unless you’re talking tube socks.”
Since the start of his career teaching college in Georgia, former GOP House
Speaker NEWT GINGRICH has cast education among the nation’s most important
domestic policy problems.
His views have developed through the years: In 1983, when the hallmark “A
Nation at Risk” was released, Gingrich, a member of Congress at the time,
traveled the country holding town hall meetings. He criticized American schools
as “no more than holding pens for our children.” In the 1990s, he called for the
abolition of the U.S. Department of Education and opposed direct government
loans to students.
In 2001, he authored a report that called the failure of math and science
education among the greatest threats to national security, “greater than any
conceivable war,” he said.
Then in 2008 and 2009, his political ambitions on hiatus, Gingrich joined
some odd bedfellows, among them civil rights activist Al Sharpton and former
Democratic Colorado governor and Los Angeles schools chancellor Roy Romer, in a
yearlong initiative to push education reform nationwide.
“I’m prepared to work side by side with every American who is committing to
putting children first,” he said in 2009 in a White House press conference,
before praising President Obama for “showing courage” in pushing unions against
charter school caps. “Not talking about it for 26 more years…. We could
literally have the finest learning in the world if we were to systematically
apply the things that work.”
He continued, “I think we need to move forward from No Child Left Behind
towards getting every American ahead.”
But how we move toward providing each child with an appropriate education is
the question. The Republican candidates all stress accountability and favor
school choice, though they prefer leaving the federal government out of
education policy decisions. Most of them emphasize reforms to enhance teacher
quality, and they question the influence of teachers unions. They support high
standards, if delegated to the states to devise and enforce. What they all have
in common is a belief that education needs deep reform that goes beyond anything
Democrats have proposed.
Allison Sherry is Washington, D.C., bureau chief for the Denver