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Who's the man for US schools?

Barack Obama and Mitt Romney may dazzle with their smiles and smooth talk, but do they have the education policies to match? Richard Vaughan examines the presidential contenders' plans

Barack Obama and Mitt Romney may dazzle with their smiles and smooth talk, but do they have the education policies to match? Richard Vaughan examines the presidential contenders' plans

On Tuesday, the world's attention will turn to the US as the public take to the poll booths to decide who will be their next leader. The presidential race between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney - described as the tightest since Al Gore narrowly, and controversially, lost to George W. Bush in 2000 - now looks too close to call.

For many observers in the UK, the fight to become the next leader of the free world seems as if it is being played out in a format akin to The X Factor. Tremendous weight is placed on the three TV debates, perhaps more than in any other general election, with the battle taking the form of a popularity contest.

The delivery of catchy one-liners appears to be more important than proper examination of their rival's policies. As a result, significant areas of difference, such as education, are often sidelined. In the run-up to his official acceptance of the Republican nomination in August, Romney said that were it not for the economy, education would be the most pressing topic in the election. And during the second televised debate between the two candidates, Obama admitted that "we haven't had the chance to talk about education much", and was forced to turn a question from an audience member on the subject of gun crime into an answer about education.

But away from the razzmatazz of the debates, the tightest presidential fight in more than a decade becomes even tighter when the two camps' education policies are interrogated.

Both candidates believe standardised tests are essential, that teachers should be rigorously and regularly moderated and that charter schools - the US equivalent of free schools - are an invaluable addition to the education system.

But, crucially, they differ on the role of the state in education, their view of the teaching profession and, above all, money. In his campaign to secure the Republican nomination, Romney stood apart from many of his competitors in believing there was a role for the Department of Education; some of his rivals declared that they would abolish the government body altogether. However, Romney does say he wants the Department to play a far smaller part when it comes to schools.

Whereas George W. Bush's Republican administration passed the No Child Left Behind law, which expanded federal involvement in education by bringing in national testing and penalties for underperforming schools, Romney advocates a more market-driven, bottom-up approach to school improvement. In his view, the responsibility of the state merely extends to collating national data and giving parents more control over which school their children attend.

Phil Handy, co-chair of Romney's education policy advisory group, said in a recent debate that the federal government's function was to provide "transparency" when it came to collecting data that would empower parents and educational leaders to make decisions about public education. "We would want to do away with the constraints that are placed on a parent's power to choose. We believe that no child should be made to go to a certain school just because they were born in a certain zip code," he said.

Money talks

At the centre of this belief in parental choice is Romney's most eye- catching and controversial policy: vouchers. President Obama's challenger would hand $25 billion of federal Title I funding for low-income pupils (essentially the same as England's pupil premium money) and special needs funding straight to children's families, for them to spend at their preferred school, whether state, charter or private. "I would expand parental choice in an unprecedented way," Romney said in a Chamber of Commerce speech before he secured the Republican nomination. This would enable parents to "vote with their feet", he added.

And while Romney plans to place more power in the hands of parents, he views teachers' unions as the biggest obstacle to achieving this goal. In May he drew a line in the sand between himself and teachers' leaders who opposed his proposals to empower parents. "When your cause in life is preventing parents from having a meaningful choice or children from having a real chance, then you are on the wrong side," he said. "You might even be in the wrong vocation, because good teachers put the interests of children first."

His comments - reminiscent in many ways of those of Michael Gove - are typical of the man who has repeatedly declared that he would fight the teaching unions, which he has described as the "clearest example of a group that has lost its way". Romney has promised to invest in teachers rather than teachers' unions, tapping into growing hostility in the US towards the unions. Recent documentary films, such as Waiting for "Superman", painted the unions as anti-progress and one of the main blockages to education reform. And Romney has a strong platform from which to attack them due to his time as governor of Massachusetts, which topped the country's state education rankings.

In contrast, Obama enjoys a very close relationship with the classroom unions, who remain some of the Democratic Party's biggest donors. While the president has faced stern criticism in many areas of policy, particularly regarding unemployment, it is in education that he has won the most plaudits. In one of his earliest acts in office, Obama placed school funding at the heart of his economic recovery package in January 2009, viewing it as integral to the country's future. He committed nearly $100 billion to education as part of his fiscal stimulus package, almost half of which went towards securing teachers' jobs.

According to Jon Schnur, a former education adviser to the Obama administration, one of the key differences between the two presidential candidates is that Obama sees investment in education as an investment in the economic stability of the country. Romney's advisers, however, have dismissed the stimulus package as merely a short-term solution.

While nearly half of the $100 billion pledged by Obama helped to keep teachers' jobs, more than $4 billion of it was spent on Race to the Top, a programme designed to improve school standards by dangling financial incentives in front of teachers and their schools. The scheme effectively pits schools against one another in order to secure grants from the government. It promotes the creation of charter schools to improve quality in education and, perhaps most controversially, it links teacher evaluation and even part of their pay to pupils' test scores. This is what is driving the fast take-up of performance-related pay for teachers in US schools - and interest in the idea on this side of the pond.

The move sparked outrage among teachers, but when faced with a choice between the two candidates, the profession seems to be siding with the man who views funding in education as essential to its improvement, instead of the man who plans to take $25 billion out of the pot and hand it to parents.

Obama's $100 billion also paid for what is described as the Common Core, the closest thing the US has to a national curriculum, which means a fourth-grade pupil in Tennessee will learn the same basic skills as a fourth-grade pupil in Massachusetts.

Schnur points to Obama's funding for schools in the stimulus package, and the policies it paid for, as a success story supported across parties. "That investment has produced enduring changes that have led Democrat and Republican governors to say this has created greater change (in the improvement of education) in the last few years than anything else in the last decade," he says.

The problem for the Obama camp now is what he plans to do next. The stimulus package is about to run out and observers are signalling that school funding is facing a fiscal cliff edge, unless the president pledges yet more money to schools.

Those hoping he will spell out his plans for the next four years are likely to be left disappointed. In the final few days before the nation makes its mind up, few will be expecting either candidate to put education at the forefront of their campaign message. Only after the people decide who they want to be their next leader will they be able to get to grips with what that man, Romney or Obama, has planned for their country's schools.

Stated aims

Obama at a glance:

- Brought in the Race to the Top programme to improve standards nationwide.

- Implemented the Common Core, which sets out the standards expected of all pupils.

- Introduced waivers that allow US states to apply to be exempt from the No Child Left Behind rules.

- Is calling for further incentives to keep the best teachers in the classroom.

Romney at a glance:

- Would enable low-income and special needs pupils to choose which school they attend.

- Would increase the number of charter schools.

- Wants the DC Opportunity scholarship to be nationwide, allowing low- income pupils to attend private schools.

- Is calling for incentives for US states to boost parental choice.

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