Eyes on 2012: The Republican Presidential Candidates’ Views on Education

article | January 20, 2012

    Maggie Severns

On the eve of the South Carolina primary, it’s still unclear which candidate will emerge as the Republican Presidential nominee for 2012— and what a victory by any of them would mean for the education world. Policy issues like pre-K access and child care are more or less invisible.

What can we expect as the race charges forward? Several reporters have noted that the ed conversation so far has focused more on the size of the federal role in education than what our nation’s education policies should look like. Despite what the candidates are saying, it's actually highly unlikely that the next President will actually eliminate the Department of Education. (For those curious, this article from the International Business Times does a good job of laying out why.) Among the four remaining candidates, Ron Paul and Rick Santorum have both framed education in this way, as a “big government” issue that is in need of some taming, while Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney have taken somewhat more moderate (and sometimes shifting) stances.

On Public Schools, PreK-12

Before diving in, it’s worth recognizing how much the Republican presidential candidates’ education platforms have departed from those of President Bush or many current Republican members of Congress. Andy Rotherham’s recent interview with George W. Bush about the 10th anniversary of No Child Left Behind was a reminder of just how much the education debate has shifted among Republicans over the last four years. In the interview, Bush defended No Child Left Behind, a hallmark of his Presidency, and noted that, “In some circles, punching No Child Left Behind is a way to basically say, I’m against Big Government.”

Regardless of a candidate’s opinion on NCLB itself, it’s true that, especially for Candidates who are trying to ideologically align themselves with the Tea Party, much early conversation about education policy in the 2012 election focused more on promoting small government than it has on the content of America’s education policies.

Ron Paul and Michelle Bachman both repeatedly called for eliminating the Department of Education during their campaigns. Paul has said he supports getting rid of the federal student loan system, too, and seems to be the only candidate who hasn’t wavered on his stance that the federal government should not be involved in K12 education.

Romney and Gingrich are relatively moderate in their stances on PreK-12 ed. Romney doesn’t actually have a page devoted to education on his campaign website, but he has a record form his time as Governor and wrote about education in his book, No Apology: The Case for American Greatness. In the past, Romney has been a supporter of No Child Left Behind, though he’s backed off this support and advocated for a smaller federal role in education during his campaign. He’s also a big supporter of school choice, improving teacher quality and alternative teacher preparations as two ways to work towards a better workforce. (For more on Romney’s views from his book, see Alison Klein’s breakdown in Ed Week.)

To his credit, Newt Gingrich is the only candidate to lay out a clear education platform on his campaign website. Despite having called for eliminating the Department of Education in the past and his unorthodox stance on child labor laws, Gingrich lays out a cadre of practical policy ideas. Most of them focus on spurring innovation and giving states, districts and charter operators more options. Performance pay, online learning, and something Gingrich calls a “no-limits charter system” that gives charter schools near-absolute freedom over their operations are all suggestions.

Additionally, both Romney and Gingrich have publicly praised President Obama’s Race to the Top program, though it’s not entirely clear how this fits into their emphasis on a reduced Department of Education.

As New America Fellow Dana Goldstein has unpacked in her blog, Santorum is “uncomfortably wedged” between the two camps. He backed No Child Left Behind when it was passed in 2001, but has tried to both distance himself from that record, and his website now promotes a reduced (though not entirely absent) government role in federal education.

The Candidates on  Early Learning

Paul and Santorum are the only candidates thus far to have weighed in on pre-K and other publicly funded early learning programs. Recently on Morning Joe, Mark Halperin goaded Ron Paul into remarking on the status of Head Start. Paul eventually said the program was “unconstitutional” but said that he would rather “cut the big things” and became frustrated with Halperin for “putting words in his mouth,” and refused to say whether he would try to get rid of the program if he were elected President.

Sen. Santorum came out strongly against pre-K earlier this year during a campaign stop in Iowa, on the grounds that pre-K programs are an early way for the government to “indoctrinate” children. (Santorum and his wife homeschool their kids.) A quote from the stop from The Des Moines Register:

“It is a parent’s responsibility to educate their children. It is not the government’s job. We have sort of lost focus here a little bit. Of course, the government wants their hands on your children as fast as they can. That is why I opposed all these early starts and pre-early starts, and early-early starts. They want your children from the womb so they can indoctrinate your children as to what they want them to be. I am against that.”

Romney and Gingrich have been silent on the subject. During his time as Massachusetts Governor between 2003 and 2007, per-pupil funding for state-funded pre-K shrank and Romney vetoed a universal pre-K proposal during that time. The number of students served in pre-K in Massachusetts grew while Romney was Governor, however, and though pre-K funding was cut in some years, it increased in others.

Another early learning program – the federally funded “home visiting” program that provides services to mothers of infants and toddlers in their homes – has also received no attention. That’s not surprising, given that most Americans have probably never heard of it. But the candidates’ calls for repeal of the 2010 health care law could have an impact. The home visiting program, called Maternal, Infant and Early Childhood Home Visiting (MIECHV), was authorized in the 2010 law. It has been gaining steam in states, particularly those that won competitive grants last fall to support regional home-visiting programs based on evidence of their ability to make an impact on child outcomes. 


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    Maggie Severns