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Kossoff Lecture at TC Features Education Debate Between Advisers to Candidates Obama and Romney

Debating at TC, the education advisors to Obama and Romney differ on the role of the federal government, funding, NCLB and more
Debating at TC, the education advisors to Obama and Romney differ on the role of the federal government, funding, NCLB and more

By Patricia Lamiell

In a debate in Teachers College’s Cowin Conference Center on October 15, Jon Schnur and Phil Handy, top education advisors to President Barack Obama and his Republican challenger, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, staked out clear philosophical differences over the role of the federal government in funding education and incentivizing reforms in testing and teacher preparation. They also clashed on the future of the federal No Child Left Behind Act and educational testing.

The TC debate, entitled, "Taking the Election to School" was designed to spotlight the candidates’ views on education, a topic many feel has received short shrift during the campaign. Coverage appeared in The Huffington Post, Scientific American and Education Week.

The event – this year's Phyllis Kossoff Lecture on Education & Policy – was moderated by TC President Susan H. Fuhrman and structured around questions submitted by listeners and viewers in New York City and Washington, D.C. The evening concluded with a panel discussion that included Jeffrey Henig, Professor of Political Science and Education and Chair of TC's Education Policy & Social Analysis Department; Liz Willen, Director of TC’s Hechinger Institute on Education and the Media; and Alyson Klein, political reporter at Education Week. The panel was moderated by Education Week Assistant Managing Editor Mark Bomster. Exclusive web streaming was provided by Education Week and sponsored by the International Reading Association.

Schnur, co-founder and Executive Chairman of America Achieves – a non-profit organization helping communities and states build high-quality educational systems – said the President has a “demonstrated, core belief” that education funding is a long-term investment in the country's future. He said a second Obama administration would continue to actively use federal funding incentives to drive key changes, as the President has previously with programs such as Race To the Top and Innovation (i3) grants.

Handy, Higher Education Co-Chair of Governor Romney’s Education Policy Advisory Group, said that, in the face of a federal budget deficit of more than $1 trillion for the past four years, a Romney administration would not increase education spending, though neither would it cut funding. He called for a system that provides funds directly to states and parents so that they can make their own choices about how to train teachers and where children should attend school.
Over the course of an hour and half, the two men – who declared themselves to be "old hands" at debating one another, and professed mutual respect –engaged in lively but collegial exchanges that stood in marked contrast to the Presidential debate that was held the following evening. The TC event  was viewed by a live audience of 650 people in the Cowin Center and an estimated 1,000 more via live webcast.

The role of the federal government in funding education was the touchstone issue for much of the conversation. On average, federal funds make up about 10 percent of state and local K-12 education budgets, but, as Schnur pointed out, they represent as much as 40 percent of the budgets of schools serving primarily low-income students. He said that the President would continue to directly involve the federal government in improving educational opportunities and quality for low-income children.

In contrast, Handy said Romney believes the government stake in state education budgets should hold stable at 10 percent, and that the federal role should be confined to “responsibility for transparency and collection of honest data,” so that “consumers, parents, children, educators and leaders” have full and accurate information about their public schools and local school choices. “We believe no child should be obligated to go to a school just because they were born in a certain zip code,” Handy said.

To illustrate Obama’s strong commitment to education, Schnur recalled that when the President took office in January 2009, the country had lost 1.5 million jobs in the prior two months and was teetering on the brink of a second Great Depression. Schnur said that, in a meeting of the President’s transition team to craft a bailout plan for banks, insurance companies and the Big Three auto makers, Obama insisted that any economic stimulus plan must also include a major investment in education. The result was a commitment of $100 billion in federal funding for education that included Race To the Top and Innovation grants, as well as an increase in Pell college grants and Head Start funding. Schnur said Obama would push for “modest increases in federal education spending” in the coming years.

But Handy argued that, far from being a long-term investment, the $100 billion education stimulus package was a stop-gap that, as it now runs its course, has left states “on the edge of a cliff.” With some economists projecting a more than $50 billion shortfall in discretionary federal spending, Handy said a Romney administration would not create its own education infusion, although he added that Romney believes he could confine budget cuts to entitlement programs such as welfare and food stamps and “hold education harmless” from federal funding decreases.

Schnur said that Romney’s “math doesn’t hold up,” and that, as President, Romney would be unable to keep his promise to cut taxes and entitlement programs without also cutting education funds.

The two spoke about whether No Child Left Behind (NCLB), a hold-over from the George W. Bush administration, should be renewed as is, changed, or repealed. Schnur said that the main impact of NCLB has been to motivate states to lower their education standards in order for students to achieve acceptable standardized test scores. As an incentive to pass the kinds of reforms which the President believes are necessary, the Obama administration has given waivers to 46 states, plus the District of Columbia, to allow them to skirt NCLB requirements. Another reason for the waivers, Schnur said, is that while NCLB demanded a “one size fits all” compliance of every state school system to get all students performing at grade level on standardized tests by 2014, it did not include the financial and other supports necessary for states to meet those goals.

Handy said Romney believes the trade-off of waivers for Obama-friendly reforms is too prescriptive for the states, and that the law should be renewed as it is, allowing states to fashion their own plans for complying with it.

The two men agreed that current standardized tests and assessments need improvement, but disagreed on what the federal government’s role should be in driving change.

“Testing has taken on a bad brand name, for sure, but unfortunately, that’s what we have to do to properly assess students,” Handy said. “We need much better assessments that are useful in giving information to parents, teachers and students on how they’re doing.”

Schnur agreed that “mediocre tests are a problem and need to be replaced  by much better assessments that measure the kinds of things that we care about.” He added that “when we set the bar low in education, it’s led us to lie to our kids. We tell them that proficiency on a mediocre test means they’re ready for success.” But the bigger problem, Schnur said, is not tests. “The real backlash should be against the fact that, in this country, we are nowhere we need to be in terms of performance.” Much more important is raising the U.S. performance on international comparisons, he said. 

To that end, he said, Obama would continue to actively create incentives for states to not only adopt the new Common Core learning standards, but also develop higher-quality assessments geared to the Common Core. Handy said that Romney believes states should determine their own responses to the Common Core standards. “It will be interesting to see if the states that have signed on to the new standards will have the political courage to implement them,” he said.

Near the end of the debate, Fuhrman observed that America’s teaching force is growing younger and more inexperienced, with more and more teachers quitting after just a few years on the job. Noting that many teachers are unhappy with being evaluated on the basis of their students’ test scores, she asked Handy and Schnur to describe their candidates’ positions on teacher preparation and evaluation – a question that produced perhaps the starkest difference of all between the two sides.

“The President and the Secretary of Education are clear that we have to develop newer teachers through ongoing, significant feedback from skilled teachers and leaders,” Schnur said. “The improved achievement of kids should be one among multiple measures. A system that doesn’t include that metric isn’t serious, while a system that only looks at that metric misses a lot of other important factors.”

Obama has a three-part plan to retain and develop teachers that includes creating career ladders and improving teacher preparation through residency-style programs such as the Academy for Urban School Teachers in Chicago. The President also wants to reduce student loan debt in order to get more qualified people to choose teaching as a profession.

Handy said that Romney would leave the improvement of teaching to the states. He called for federal Title II money (which is intended to increase the number of high-quality, effective teachers and principals) and funding from the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act to be given directly to states in block grants, so that states “open up the path for people from all walks of life to become teachers” through alternative certification paths such as Teacher for America.

In short, Schnur and Handy presented vastly different visions for how education should be enacted. It is no overstatement to say that the nation’s future depends on which one voters embrace.

Published Wednesday, Oct. 17, 2012


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