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Ensuring that all citizens have access to a decent education is one of the primary duties of a modern government. Primary and secondary education are crucial for successful socialization, the acquiring of civic values, and the development of crucial life skills ranging from literacy to multiplication to understanding the complexities of the world. Mastering a field of knowledge through post-secondary education allows individuals to raise their living standards and their socio-economic positions in society. It also helps ensure continual innovation. In the United States, approximately 90 percent of students from pre-kindergarten through grade 8 attend public schools, placing the burden for a decent education on the government.
President George W. Bush reformed the modern education system with the passage of the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act of 2001, which attempted to use standardized testing and teacher evaluation to measure and increase the quality of primary and secondary education American students receive. Standards for tests are set at the state level while the federal government provides funding to help offset costs incurred by state budgets. On a practical level, NCLB is the standard for education reform, and either President Barack Obama or Governor Mitt Romney will have to work within the provisions of the law after the 2012 election. Mr. Romney was governor of Massachusetts after Congress passed NCLB, while President Obama took office after the law’s passage.
One of the key political debates about education centers on the idea of student choice. Both Mr. Obama and Mr. Romney support charter schools and thus a certain degree of increased student choice, as charter schools are publicly funded schools that are allowed a certain degree of independence from academic regulations in return for producing a higher level of academic achievement. However, Mr. Romney additionally supports school vouchers while Mr. Obama does not. School vouchers (or education vouchers) are certificates issued by the government that parents can use to be reimbursed for private tuition costs. Mr. Romney argues that such a system would improve student choice and thus indirectly improve school accountability, as the underperforming schools would be used by fewer students. Mr. Obama opposes the use of such vouchers, arguing that the policy hollows out the public education system because less money would go toward public schools if students opted out of them.
While in office, President Obama has instituted Race to the Top, a system of federal grants designed to reward schools that meet certain educational benchmarks and reforms. These grants are designed to ensure that states set education policy that is amenable to the federal government. Increased government spending on education was an Obama campaign plank in 2008, as then-senator Obama explained that he supported a certain type of merit pay based on a teacher’s dedication to the profession, including demonstrated professional development, rather than year-by-year results. Merit pay is an idea built into NCLB that pays teachers according to how well their students perform on certain standardized tests. Mr. Romney is a supporter of the president’s policies on merit pay and school choice, describing Obama’s steps as “positive.”
Issues surrounding higher education differ greatly from those related to primary and secondary education. The quality and cost of higher education in the United States vary widely. Unlike in many developed nations, where higher education is provided by the national government, American higher education is provided by private institutions as well as by public institutions run by the states. Post-secondary education is not compulsory, and citizens who wish to go to college must find a way to pay their own way, either at public schools or more expensive private colleges. Students may receive grants (scholarships that do not have to be paid back) or loans to pay for their education. Even with these options, however, a good college education is prohibitively expensive for many. The average student with loans graduates almost $25,000 in debt, which adds up to $902 billion of student loan debt nationwide. The federal government now lends 88 percent of the money for student loans, with $795 billion lent, so the next president may face the responsibility of addressing the size of student loan debt.
President Obama has prioritized the issue of student loans. In 2010, he advocated for and signed student loan reform meant to expand college access to millions of Americans. This law expanded the role of the federal government in administering loans, provided funds to expand Pell Grants, which go to students in great financial need, and made it easier for former students to pay back their loans, by allowing them to cap their repayment rate at 10 percent of their income. In the summer of 2012, he supported a measure that froze interest rates, thus preventing student loan rates from doubling, as they would have if Congress had not acted.
If elected, Mr. Romney would try to reverse Mr. Obama’s 2010 reform. “A Romney administration will embrace a private- sector role in providing information, financing and education itself, working with effective businesses to support the goals of students and their families,” according to Mr. Romney’s education-policy platform.
Mr. Romney has also stated that America should place more emphasis on higher education, especially post-graduate degrees. He feels that the emphasis on higher education after World War II helped propel American to its current position in the world economy and that in order for America to remain competitive we must remain committed to emphasizing higher education, focusing on engineering, computer science, and technology. In 2010, he wrote, “[China and India] graduate more than two times the number of students in these fields as we do. . . . This is a stunning reversal of global preeminence in the priority attached to the highest level of educational attainment.”
President Obama, like Mr. Romney, is concerned about increasing the number of workers in the high-tech sector to fulfill a seriously growing need by employers. If reelected, Mr. Obama will continue to push an $8 billion program to train community college students for high-growth industries and provide financial incentives to programs that ensured their trainees find work.
-This article was written by Ted Mateoc and appears in full in The IDEA Guide to the 2012 U.S. Presidential Elections.