Preparing the future workforce will be arguably the next president’s most far-reaching task, as the United States adapts to a competitive global economy and a fast-evolving employment market. Over the next four years, effective education and job-training policies from the White House could have a large multiplier effect on long-term growth and stability. Economists are predicting a market demand for skilled workers that, if fulfilled by Americans, would shave a few points off the unemployment rate.
The depressing part of the story is that the American workforce is far from ready to meet the employment demand. Dozens of barriers block U.S. workers from filling the high-paying jobs that are already available. Some of those barriers are specific to today’s fragile economy. Because many homeowners are underwater on their mortgages, it may be hard for job seekers to pick up and move from a depressed area to a faster-growing one. And employers, still fearful that revenues could dry up, tend to leave jobs unfilled rather than add workers to their payrolls.
But most hiring barriers are the direct result of systemic inequities in American education. Public schools in high-poverty areas do little to ready students for college or jobs, for example. A high school dropout who then gets a GED diploma and takes a few community-college classes won’t be at the top of the list for most job openings.
Political candidates who proclaim that education is important might as well say that potato chips taste good and candlesticks make nice wedding gifts. They can utter such pleasantries in a hundred different ways while shedding little light on their actual agenda. President Obama and his Republican opponent, Mitt Romney, both speak eloquently about the need to prepare workers for tomorrow’s jobs, which will require more education and technical training than was necessary for any previous workforce. They eerily echo one another’s rhetoric, decrying the “crisis” in education and stressing the need for students to enter and finish college.
But Obama and Romney have broad philosophical differences about how we should prepare the next generation of American workers. It comes down to this: Romney would rely more on markets to effect change; Obama would rely more on government.
Obama has prominently displayed his pro-government cards by devoting tremendous effort to shoring up federal programs designed to get more education to more people. Back in 2009, he funneled nearly $100 billion in economic-stimulus funds into education. Since then, he has battled Congress to maintain education programs, facing tight budget constraints backed by Republicans who want to shrink the size of government. Obama has fought to maintain Pell Grants, which provide low-income students access to postsecondary eduction, and has so far shielded the Education Department from the most draconian cuts. He is also comfortable using a carrot-and-stick approach to nudge states and communities toward his educational goals. He has dangled the promise of extra federal money to encourage state officials to adopt common achievement standards and to turn around failing schools.
Romney had little to say about education until recently, when he unveiled a bold plan heavily reliant on school choice. The most radical piece of the plan would require states to give disadvantaged students open enrollment to all schools—public and private.
Romney’s plan does, however, include more federal involvement than his earlier comments seemed to indicate. He previously pledged to make the Education Department “a heck of a lot smaller” and declared that Washington should distance itself from education. But his statewide-choice idea relies on federal money, turning the localized funding model for public schools on its head. The plan suggests that Romney may not be as committed as other Republicans to getting the federal government out of public schools. He said in unveiling his plan, “For the first time in history, federal education funds will be linked to a student, so that parents can send their child to any public or charter school, or to a private school, where permitted.”
College is the ultimate goal for today’s students if they are to form the backbone of a skilled workforce. Yet many low-income and, increasingly, middle-income students don’t get that far. Four-year universities are out of reach for them in terms of both price and scholastic achievement. Many high school graduates who make it to a community college or certificate-training program require catch-up courses. Education Secretary Arne Duncan, a close friend of Obama’s, has spent much of his time in Washington hammering on public high schools with low graduation rates, using every federal tool at his disposal to lean on these so-called dropout factories.
Obama has made it clear that he has no patience for low-performing elementary and secondary schools, particularly if they continue to fail their students year in and year out with no consequences. The president and his deputies frequently cite his Race to the Top competitive grant program as the White House’s most successful domestic operation because it pulls states toward dramatic school reforms with the promise of a little extra funding. It’s true that the grant program has had an impact. Since its inception, 46 states have signed on to the common core educational-achievement standards, an administration priority. Forty states and the District of Columbia applied for the grants, which put them on a path to major school reforms even if they didn’t win any money.
Romney’s education platform signals that he is willing to go down a similar road in imposing federal priorities on states. His school-choice plan is a nod to the type of reform promoted by President George W. Bush and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, and it is a clear rejection of other Republicans’ calls to eliminate the federal role in education. Romney’s white paper on education proudly declares that he “will take the unprecedented step of tying federal funds directly to dramatic reforms that expand parental choice.”
Romney’s school-choice plan taps into his deep-seated belief that competition is the answer to almost every problem. It is hard to imagine, though, how allowing federal dollars to “follow the student” would help struggling families get out of failing school systems. Today, federal funds for disadvantaged students are distributed to schools based on the percentage of low-income and disabled students enrolled. With state budgets strained to the breaking point, likely precluding any boost in their education funding, the limited federal per-student allocation is not enough to make a difference for individual students. It can’t fully offset private-school tuition, nor can it guarantee enrollment at high-achieving—and thus probably oversubscribed—public schools.
College is where it’s at in terms of a campaign rallying cry. Obama has tapped into public concern about unemployment by emphasizing the dilemma: College costs a lot more than when he and most voters were students. Yet, a college degree is more important for obtaining a decent job than ever before. The president has campaigned aggressively for government help in boosting enrollment and graduation rates at community colleges—the least expensive and most flexible option for disadvantaged or nontraditional students trying to get some postsecondary education under their belts.
Obama also hit a political home run this spring when he devoted a week of White House face time to maintaining a 3.4 percent interest rate for need-based student loans. Without congressional action, the rates will double in July. The student-loan interest rate was a sleeper issue until Obama took it on. A few student-advocacy groups had been lobbying Congress to stop the rate hike from going into effect, but few lawmakers took up their cause. Once Obama set out on a three-college tour to talk about it, the student-loan interest-rate “crisis” went viral.
Romney, quickly realizing that he did not want to be on the losing end of the issue, endorsed a one-year freeze of the 3.4 percent interest rate. Republicans in Congress then scrambled to respond, because they had previously balked at freezing the rate, citing the $6 billion cost. The resulting back and forth set off a high-pitched political conversation about the woes of borrowing for college versus the taxpayer burden of subsidized loans. The debate expanded to the plight of the middle class and the obstacles to getting ahead. Therein lies the power of campaign rhetoric about college.
Washington does not heavily regulate postsecondary education, and Romney is less willing than Obama to stretch the federal government’s reach to include public universities. Invoking his market-based sensibilities, Romney has advised students to “shop around” for a good deal on college loans. He has offered a few words of praise for for-profit colleges. He has also pledged to bring private-sector lending back into the student-loan market.
Obama, by contrast, eliminated private lending from the student-loan program after scandals came to light, and he pursued rules to limit for-profit schools’ access to federal tuition aid based on the “gainful employment” rate of graduates.
TRAINING AND RETRAINING
College is not necessarily the answer for the nearly three-quarters of unemployed Americans who are over 25. Many of these people need targeted, practical job training and help in finding employment listings. Obama wants the government to provide such aid. Romney echoes the GOP’s “ownership society” mantra that the best help comes from the private sector.
Obama has called for unifying the current assortment of federal job-training programs and investing more money in counseling for job seekers. He says that every displaced worker should have access to government reemployment services and that older workers should have “wage insurance” to offset any salary losses from a career change. The president isn’t likely to get much of what he wants in the current congressional climate, however, and he hasn’t resisted Congress’s job-training cuts as aggressively as he fought to retain education funds.
Romney’s campaign has proposed big job-training cuts, citing duplicative programs weighed down by bureaucracy. “Their argument is that we can get more and spend less,” said National Skills Coalition Executive Director Andy Van Kleunen, whose group says that the government should spend a lot more on job training. Such programs lack a dedicated voting constituency, which makes them an easy target, Van Kleunen says. “Who’s going to make a big stink if we cut a bunch of job-training programs?”
Romney wants to use block grants to put the responsibility for job training on the states. He has proposed a voucher program under which job seekers could shop for résumé-writing or computer-training services from the private sector. One of Romney’s education advisers, Emily DeRocco, directed a similar voucher program in the George W. Bush administration as assistant secretary of Labor for employment and training. Democrats pilloried the initiative, which was quietly phased out. Its tepid results were never made public.
It is hard to imagine tomorrow’s workforce without immigrants. Between 1990 and 2005, immigrants started 25 percent of the highest-growth companies in the United States, and those businesses now employ more than 200,000 workers. Both Obama and Romney are keenly aware of this fact as well as the countervailing political volatility of immigration. Romney, in particular, has to deal with vigorous denunciation in the Republican base of any policies that could be considered immigrant-friendly. Obama has it only slightly easier. He must respond to liberal critics who complain that he hasn’t done enough to overcome GOP opposition and push a broad immigration overhaul through Congress.
Obama has called for a new “entrepreneur visa” that would give permanent legal status to highly skilled immigrants who want to start a business or work in research laboratories. The idea is that these entrepreneurs from other countries won’t take jobs—they’ll create them. Romney supports raising the cap on H-1B visas for highly skilled foreign workers, a policy that organized labor opposes. Both Obama and Romney have said that foreign graduates of American universities in science, engineering, and math should be given green cards as lawful permanent residents.
Obama has demonstrated that he is willing to crack down on illegal immigrant workers. His administration has aggressively audited job sites and deported undocumented workers. Still, the president has said he won’t sign off on a mandatory electronic verification program, known as E-Verify, for employers to determine the eligibility of an employee to work in the United States if it isn’t part of a comprehensive immigration-policy overhaul that includes legalization of some undocumented residents. Romney stays true to the GOP playbook in opposing any type of legalization program. He has pledged to implement an electronic verification system for employers to check the legal status of new hires.
Organized labor considers Obama a friend, if not always a kindred spirit. Although the president has made union members squirm with his endorsement of some school reforms and free-trade agreements, he has also championed unionized workforces by forcing appointments to the National Labor Relations Board over GOP objections, endorsed “card-check” legislation that would make it easier for workers to form unions, and defended public-employee unions from Republican attacks.
Romney essentially defines himself in opposition to Obama’s stances on labor. He has promised to undo Obama’s union-friendly executive orders and encourage states to adopt laws prohibiting union/employer agreements about union membership.
This article appears in the June 2, 2012, edition of National Journal Magazine.