Education and the Republican Presidential Candidates

While the election of the President of the United States occurs every four years, for several election cycles now it has seemed as if the campaign for the candidacy of each party and the subsequent presidential election campaign itself starts earlier and earlier. The first Republican Party candidate debate was on May 5, 2011; there have been seven additional debates since then, and there are plenty more to come. According to the National Journal’s Presidential Candidate Debate timeline, there are eleven more scheduled between now and March 19, 2012—the actual election year. Through the debates that have already occurred, we’ve heard a lot from the GOP candidates vying for their party’s nomination in the 2012 Presidential election.  So far, the candidates have weighed in on taxes, health care, gay marriage, immigration, and other controversial issues. But where do the Republican candidates stand on education?

The short answer is that it’s hard to tell.  Many commentators have indicated for the past several months that the candidates have shied away from the subject of education. Time Magazine reports that, “Most of the Republican candidates do not even include education positions on their websites” (Herman Cain is one prominent exception to this.)  But as the apparent Democratic candidate, President Barack Obama, steps up his attention to education by revising No Child Left Behind, beginning student loan reform, and spearheading a new investment initiative in the nation’s community colleges, Republican candidates have had to spend more time addressing education issues.

If the Republican candidates have been hesitant to tackle the subject, it may be with good reason: They don’t seem to have any concrete policy proposals and, at times, have contradicted themselves blatantly.  For example, Trip Gabriel pointed out in The New York Times that in one debate, Rick Perry accused front-runner Mitt Romney of supporting Obama’s Race to the Top Program. Romney responded by stating, “I don’t support any particular program that he’s describing”—even though “Mr. Romney had praised Race to the Top the day before.” Sorting out the various, always changing positions of these candidates is akin to trying to grasp a slippery eel in a vat of oil.  In other words: good luck.

But there are at least one common theme that stands out: All the Republican candidates have in common a deep suspicion, if not outright rejection, of the role of the federal government in education. In his column in The Nation, Ben Adler argues that “to a degree that has been unmatched in recent years, serious contenders for a major party nomination expressed contempt for the very government they seek to lead. You would have to go back to Barry Goldwater in 1964 and his segregationist allies to find a campaign when ‘states’ rights’ were so in vogue.”  This “state’s rights” theme (disguised in a more benign terminology as “anti-federalism,” because that term does not raise the specter of the nullification debates of the Civil War and Civil Rights Movement and their violent outcomes) recurs in nearly all Republican candidate platforms, with the noteworthy exception of support for the federal commitment to the armed forces.

Despite this commonality, there are some slight differences. Here is a summary of where the current leading Republican candidates stand on education:

  • Herman Cain wants to “unbundle education,” pay teachers based on their performance, and end all federal student loans. Part of his criticism of the current system is that it is burdened by an “excessive level of bureaucracy through expanded unionization and regulation.”
  • Ron Paul (R-Texas) also wants to end federal student loans and abolish the U.S.  Department of Education. He blames the rise of loan defaults on the high cost of education. As a graduate of Duke University School of Medicine, he said, “I could work my way through college and medical school because it wasn’t so expensive.”
  • Rick Perry (R-Texas) is another opponent of the Department of Education who refused to allow Texas to participate in the creation of the national Common Core Standards and in the competition for federal Race to the Top funds, which would have poured federal money into Texas’s public school system. Sarah Butrymowicz pointed out that, “While Perry claims to have pushed Texas to the forefront in developing college and career readiness standards, opponents cite the state’s low high-school graduation rate and huge cuts to public education on the governor’s watch.”
  • Mitt Romney (R-Massachusetts), as governor of Massachusetts, presided over one of the most successful public school systems in the country in Massachusetts, but, to borrow a term from another presidential election, he has flip-flopped on education policy during the campaign. A supporter of standardized testing, he would replace underperforming public schools with privately-run charter schools, and would rather focus on improving the family economy than on providing student loans.  A long-time advocate of the elimination of the Department of Education, Romney changed his mind a few years ago and now favors federal intervention help in “holding down the interest of the teachers’ unions.”

To date, none of the candidates have actually outlined a specific, workable plan to strengthen and revive the nation’s school systems. The problem with the vagueness and hesitance of the Republican candidates to outline specific policy proposals, other than the elimination of student loans and the Department of Education, is that there clearly is a problem with education in the United States, and Americans want a solution. Low scores across the board, from reading to mathematics (lower, in some cases, than in less developed nations), have many Americans questioning the current system and looking for ways to improve it.

And there are problems with the current proposals of the Republican candidates. It doesn’t take extensive study of history to figure out that the Republican idea of relegating regulatory power to the states has not worked out in the past. A brief examination of the history of segregation in education, for example, will point out that sometimes state agencies and leaders do not make the best choices for all people—and they certainly don’t always make constitutional choices. It is also important to remember that the presidential oath is a promise to “preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States” – and that the federal government’s commitment to ensuring the constitutional rights to liberty and equality to all people means that a state’s rights platform on education will be problematic at best and chillingly divisive and unequal at worst.

Another point to consider is that those candidates who advocate the elimination of student loans because students should be able to work and put themselves through college is that all of these candidates went to college and/or graduate school in eras when the unemployment rate was much lower and when the real wages of workers generally increased from year-to-year. For example, Ron Paul went to college and medical school in the 1950s and early 1960s, when the American economy was at its post-war zenith, when the unemployment rate, with a few temporary exceptions, was generally below 5% and often below 3%. This is a real issue, as today’s students find it very difficult to secure summer or part-time jobs because they are competing with laid-off full-time workers, as was the case across the nation this summer, according to Business Insider. Among the Republican candidates, there is no discussion, thus far, of how the elimination of student loans will work in a society with a nearly 10% unemployment rate—or of how lack of student loans will have an impact of the production of new workers and new professions to help bolster the economy.

At this point, it appears that Americans looking for a clear message about education policy from the Republican candidates are going to have to wait until the field narrows and a candidate emerges who will have the foresight to thoroughly address a basic issue of daily life, the education of our people, without resorting to generalizations.