In the first presidential debate this week, both Governor Romney and President Obama gave education a bigger spotlight than anticipated. Both candidates approached education reform as a way to drive job creation and improve workforce training for American workers. Their comments, however, brought up a few lingering questions. (For more on the debate, check out this post from Maggie Severns at our sister blog, Early Ed Watch.)
Governor Romney’s Record: The Massachusetts Bubble
Governor Romney touted his record in Massachusetts, saying the state’s schools “are ranked number one in the nation.” It is true that Massachusetts schools ranked first during his tenure as governor – but with a few caveats. Romney’s ranking of choice is based on National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) fourth and eighth grade reading and math scale scores in each state in 2005. While NAEP is considered a reasonably rigorous test, it is important to note that it is administered through a system of statistical sampling. This means it doesn’t include all students, or even all schools, in a state. Further, the distinctions between states at the top are marginal, a difference of as little as one percentage point, calling into question the import of a “number one” ranking.
Regardless of the measure, though, Massachusetts ranked first in NAEP scores in at least reading as early as 2002, before Governor Romney took office. That year, Massachusetts fourth graders scored an average of 234 points on the NAEP reading exam, well above the national average of 217. In 2005, they scored 231 in reading compared to 217 across the country, and fourth graders scored 247 in the math exam compared to the national average of 237. And even as recently as 2011, Massachusetts again ranked first according to NAEP scores in all subjects. This suggests that Romney might have just been riding the wave of high achievement; it is unlikely that his policies specifically caused these patterns.
So Governor Romney is right that Massachusetts was ranked first in the country according to the NAEP scores during his tenure. But it is harder to make a claim that the ranking was a result of his policies, especially given that the state performed well before he even took office, and still ranked first in the nation afterwards.
President Obama’s Plans: But How Would We Pay for Them?
President Obama, for his part, also spoke at length about education, saying “I think we’ve got to invest in education and training. I think it’s important…that we take some of the money that we’re saving as we wind down two wars to rebuild America and that we reduce our deficit in a balanced way that allows us to make these critical investments.”
Among those investments, he plugged his administration’s Race to the Top program (three mentions of the competition from the president in 90 minutes!). Congress and the Administration established the Race to the Top with $4.35 billion in the 2009 America Recovery and Reinvestment Act and subsequent rounds of nearly $700 million and $550 million respectively in 2011 and 2012. The President also repeated a proposal from his Democratic National Convention speech in which he called for 100,000 new science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) teachers. That goal—a $1 billion, one-year proposal the president included in his 2013 budget request, or 1.5 percent of the Department of Education’s annual appropriation. He also called for an additional 2 million community college slots (likely funded with federal money). But if the president is to make good on his deficit-restraining rhetoric on display during the first debate, he will have a tough time finding the money to make those investments. After all, you can’t raise taxes, spend that new revenue, and then reduce the deficit.
The candidates face two more presidential debates, and a vice-presidential debate will be held next week. But there’s not much time left in the campaign for the president or Governor Romney to fine-tune their positions. And come November 6, they may be facing an entirely new reality.