A Guide to Presidential Views on Education

Feb 27, 2012

This year’s Republican presidential hopefuls have been making their way through Ohio over the past couple weeks looking for votes in the state’s March 6thprimary. The candidates have some unified themes when it comes to education, mostly around cutting back on federal and state spending on public schools and increasing school choice. Currently, the federal government chips in only about 10 percent toward the cost of public education in America. But even that small amount is more than the federal government used to contribute.

University of Akron Political scientist Stephen Brooks says that change came in the second half of the 20th century.

He says, “as society grew and as it became more complex there felt the need to be some role for the federal government in dealing with education.”

Brooks says the real launching point for federal education initiatives was Sputnick. You know, the Soviet satellite that beat the Americans in the race to orbit the earth.

The 2012 Republican candidates all think the federal government has been overreaching into education ever since.

Some, more than others.

“If you care about your children you’ll get the fed government out of the business of educating your kids,”  said candidate Ron Paul during one of the many Republic debates.

Paul is probably the most vocal of the GOP bunch when it comes to cutting back on federal funding for schools. In fact, he wants to eliminate the US Department of Education.

In an interview with MSNBC last year, Paul said people shouldn’t take federally supported education for granted.

“You have a right to your life you have a right to your property but education isn’t a right. Medical care isn’t a right. These are things you have to earn.”

Newt Gingrich has been singing a similar tune. This is what he had to say at a GOP debate hosted by Fox late last year, criticizing the Bush era No Child Left Behind Act and the federal government’s increasing role in education:

“The correct answer is to radically reduce the Department of Education, cut out all Federal regulations and return the money and power back to the states but I would say to states it’d be good for them to shrink their departments of education and return the power back to the local county boards and then let parents and teachers and students get back to learning.”

All of the candidates think it would be better to have more school choice. That means more charter schools, voucher programs, and support for homeschooling.

Rick Santorum home-schools his seven children and has been a consistent critic of the public school system. Here he is campaigning in Columbus in mid-February:

“Yes, the government can help but the idea that the federal government should be running schools frankly much less that the state government should be running schools in anachronistic. It goes back to the time of industrialization of America when people  came off the farms and they did home school or have the little neighborhood school and into these factories so we built equal factories called public schools. And while those factories as we all know in PA and Ohio have fundamentally changes, the factory school has not.”

Of course, when it comes to education, the Republican candidates do not leave the teachers unions out of the conversation. Cutting back on union power is just about the only use Mitt Romney can see for the Federal Department of Education.

“I believe there is a role in the fed gov to push back against the federal teachers unions and instead allow the localities and states to take leadership of schools to run the schools on behalf of the kids and not on behalf of the teachers unions.”

Of course, during the campaign education has taken a back seat to another issue: the economy.

But Political Scientist Stephen Brooks says all the talk about fixing a broken economy is exactly why education is such an important issue for the presidential candidates.

“Certainly the founding fathers really believed in public education because they felt that if the entire country was not educated then they felt that we would not have a thriving and exciting democracy,” said Brooks. “The secondary reason why education is important to us in a national election and thinking of it as a country is that over the past 10 to 15 years the importance of education in terms of producing good jobs and producing a strong economy has really become more important.”

Brooks says education and a thriving economy have only grown more intertwined over the last couple years as low skill jobs slip away and employers demand more degrees and higher levels of education than ever before.

StateImpact Ohio is an education reporting collaboration of NPR and Ohio public radio stations WCPN, WKSU and WOSU.” For more education reporting, go to stateimpact.npr.org/ohio.