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?”