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When It Comes To Education, Two Peas In A Pod?


I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, fall is here and that means a new round of television shows are starting up. We've invited television critic Eric Deggans to tell us what's different this season, especially during daytime. That's in just a minute.

But, first, fall also marks the beginning of the school year and, this year, presidential campaigns are in full swing, of course. A lot of education issues are on the table for this election. Charter schools, teacher accountability. We wanted to cut through the talking points and sort out exactly who stands for what, so we've called Alyson Klein. She's a reporter for Education Week and she has actually compared each campaign's message on education for Education Week's Politics K-12 blog and she's with us now from Charlotte.

Thank you so much for joining us.

ALYSON KLEIN: Thank you for having me, Michel.

MARTIN: And, last week, I should mention, you were also at the Republican convention in Tampa. Do you feel that education has been a major issue at either convention or both?

KLEIN: I have to be honest. It's been tough as an education reporter at both conventions. It really has been sort of a side issue in a campaign that's been dominated by, you know, economic concerns.

MARTIN: What are the biggest differences between the two major parties when it comes to education on the policies that they have articulated?

KLEIN: Well, I think that the Republicans would like to see a really robust role for private school choice. Certainly, that's the centerpiece of Governor Romney's education platform. He wants federal dollars that now go to school districts for them to use to educate disadvantaged kids and kids in special education. He wants to take those dollars and give them to parents directly. And then what parents could do is they could use them at either, you know, another public school in the district or at a private school.

A lot of people have actually criticized this proposal because they say the federal dollars aren't really enough to cover the entire cost of education at a private or, you know, even another public school.

Another major point of contention between the two parties deals with education funding. Paul Ryan's budget would cut domestic discretionary spending, which is the category that includes education, by 20 percent. You know, the Obama folks have run ads talking about how that would really put a lot of pressure on education programs, including college access programs, prekindergarten, so I think we're going to hear a lot about school choice and funding in any debates between these two candidates.

MARTIN: It has been said that this administration, the Obama Administration, has spent a record amount on education, despite these very difficult economic times that we've been in. I'm going to have to ask you to fact check here. Is it, in fact, the case?

KLEIN: I think that that's certainly the case. The Obama Administration provided $100 billion for education in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, better known out there as the stimulus. They also created a program called Race to the Top, which rewarded states who took on certain education redesign priorities of the administration, you know, such as reforming their teacher evaluation systems, expanding charter schools and taking a really aggressive stance on the lowest performing schools.

MARTIN: And what are critics of this program saying?

KLEIN: There's absolutely a contingent in both parties who don't like Race to the Top because they feel that it's, you know, too big of an expansion of the federal role. What I think President Obama would say to that is that no one forced these states to apply to Race to the Top. It was an opt in, you know, competitive grant program. If they wanted these dollars, they can join the competition. If they didn't want these dollars, they didn't have to adopt these reforms and practices.

MARTIN: Is there anything that the two candidates agree on when it comes to education?

KLEIN: Sure. There's actually quite a bit that the two candidates agree on when it comes to education. They're both big fans of charter schools. They both want to see teacher evaluation reformed and revamped, although they have different ideas about exactly how to do that.

President Obama has encouraged states and districts to tie teacher evaluation, in part, to test scores. Governor Romney wants to change the portion of the No Child Left Behind Act that deals with teacher equality, so they're both really interested in that issue.

MARTIN: Now, you know, both candidates mention the so-called achievement gap, which is to say sort of the testing gap between the highest achieving students and the rest who are not meeting that standard. In fact, the former Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, at the Republican convention called it, quote, "the civil rights issue of our day." But, when she says that, when people use that term, what are they talking about?

KLEIN: Well, they're talking about the, you know, huge gap when it comes to how low income and, in some cases, minority kids do compared to their more advantaged peers and it's something that every president has had to wrestle with. Really, that's part of the reason that the federal government created what's called the Title One Program, which helps equalize funding for disadvantaged kids. That program was created back in the 1960s, so folks were worried about the achievement gap then. It's not a new concern in presidential campaigns or federal rhetoric.

MARTIN: And, finally, before we let you go, I do have to ask about sort of the atmosphere. I mean, as you said, you know, education has not been kind of the top of the line issue as it was, say, when George W. Bush was first running for president, when he talked about his vision for education reform and he coined or used that famous phrase the soft bigotry of low expectations. And the people that you're talking to there, the people who are involved with education, how are they feeling about things? Are they discouraged that their issue is not more present in the conversations that are taking place at the conventions, or do they share the view that really it is the economy first and foremost?

KLEIN: I think it depends on who you talk to. I think folks in education policy are kind of used to education not really ever rising to a level of a major campaign issue. Certainly, the teachers unions here remain supportive of President Obama, although there are elements of his agenda that they really do not like, including tying teacher evaluations - and in some cases pay - in part to student test scores. They are not so thrilled with that. A lot of them are not so thrilled - a lot of teachers union members are not so thrilled with President Obama's expansion of charter schools. So, you know, there are still some tensions - major tensions - within the Democratic Party which folks seem to sort of be, you know, putting aside this week for the campaign.

MARTIN: That was Alyson Klein. She's a reporter for Education Week, and she's actually compared the major party platforms and proposals of the two major party candidates around education issues. And she was kind enough to join us from the DNC in Charlotte, North Carolina.

Alyson, thanks so much for joining us.

KLEIN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.