The large amounts of outside money flowing into the Los Angeles Unified school board election represent a new front in the reform battles that have shaken up education politics over the last decade. Donations of $1 million by Mayor Michael Bloomberg of New York City and $250,000 by former District of Columbia Public Schools Chancellor [...]
The large amounts of outside money flowing into the Los Angeles Unified school board election represent a new front in the reform battles that have shaken up education politics over the last decade. Donations of $1 million by Mayor Michael Bloomberg of New York City and $250,000 by former District of Columbia Public Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee, in particular, have sparked controversy.
But the involvement of national school reform players in local district politics is a trend likely to accelerate now that would-be reformers have won major policy victories at the state and federal levels, experts and advocates say. Upcoming races in Denver and Newark, N.J., may be the next target for national groups like Rhee’s advocacy organization, StudentsFirst, and major donors like Bloomberg and his former school chancellor, Joel Klein, who has also contributed money to the Los Angeles race.
“A lot of the reform success started at the federal level with Race to the Top, it moved to states and now it’s very much in the implementation phase at the district level,” said Joe Williams, director of Democrats for Education Reform (DFER), an advocacy group that supports charter schools and teacher accountability. “How implementation is handled is important to a lot of people.”
In the case of Los Angeles, donors like Bloomberg, Rhee, and local philanthropists such as Eli Broad (who has been among the many funders of The Hechinger Report), are giving to a slate of school-board candidates who support charter schools, new teacher evaluations based on student test scores, and overhauling teacher tenure. Although Los Angeles is already piloting new evaluations to be launched next year, the teachers union has resisted the inclusion of test scores as a major factor in the rating system. (Student achievement measures will make up 30 percent of a teacher’s rating under a system negotiated this year with the union.)
Reformers are also concerned that the city’s charter schools might be adversely affected if the make-up of the school board becomes more union-friendly.
Outside participation in local education politics is not entirely a new phenomenon. National groups were involved in state races in last November’s elections, and national donors gave generously to candidates in last year’s school-board race in New Orleans. “The extent that you have Bloomberg giving a million dollars, that’s new,” said Sarah Reckhow, a political scientist at Michigan State University and author of Follow the Money: How Foundation Dollars Change Public School Politics. “But the base and the networks and the foundation for getting to this point [have] built over a couple of election cycles.”
A decade ago, fights for mayoral control of school districts—which took power out of the hands of many local school boards—also occasionally attracted outside involvement from national foundations or other advocates. “It’s where you don’t have mayoral control where you see the outside money going into the local school boards,” said Jeffrey Henig, a political scientist at Teachers College, Columbia University, who is beginning research on the involvement of national groups in local education politics. “In places where you don’t have the friendly mayor as your ally, this becomes a backup strategy.”
The local teachers union, United Teachers Los Angeles, has been among the most vocal opponents of the participation of large national donors in the race. The union is supporting a separate slate of candidates, including incumbent Steve Zimmer, who helped push through the new teacher evaluation system and who last year proposed a two-month moratorium on the approval of new charter schools. The measure was defeated.
Voters “do not need outsiders deciding who is best to sit on the LAUSD Board of Education,” Warren Fletcher, president of United Teachers Los Angeles, said in a statement quoted by the Los Angeles Times.
Henig says the increased outside involvement in local education politics could become a concern. “There are some legitimate questions about democracy and local community values,” he said. “In a lot of instances, the incumbents are not entrenched interests, they are responding to a constituency that elected them.”
Yet despite the attention the Los Angeles election is receiving, it’s unclear whether the outside cash will make much difference in the outcome of the races. The money from Bloomberg, Rhee and other donors is mostly going toward television commercials. In an off-year school board election that will likely turn out few voters, Reckhow said knocking on doors is usually a better strategy.
And the involvement of wealthy outsiders could create a backlash, Williams of DFER said: “The money could also be what tanks a candidate, if that’s what the storyline is with voters.”
Education may not have topped the average voter’s priority list this year, but that didn’t stop the presidential candidates from making it a focus throughout the long campaign season. As most Americans cast their ballot Tuesday worrying mainly about the economy and the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy, both candidates are no doubt hopeful that voters [...]
Education may not have topped the average voter’s priority list this year, but that didn’t stop the presidential candidates from making it a focus throughout the long campaign season. As most Americans cast their ballot Tuesday worrying mainly about the economy and the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy, both candidates are no doubt hopeful that voters will also remember their frequent messages about how they plan to help the country’s students.
President Obama has asked for another four years to continue the policies he started, frequently alluding to his Race to the Top initiative which pushed 46 states to undertake education reforms in hopes of winning federal grant money. Going forward, he’s outlined plans for increasing the pool of math and science teachers and improving training programs at community colleges.
Mitt Romney agreed with some of the policies Obama has promoted, like merit pay for teachers. But he has maintained that states should make the majority of education policy decisions, not the White House. His education platform centers on increasing school choice by creating a nationwide voucher system for low-income and special needs children.
In the last two months, the differences between Obama and Romney’s education policies became more crystalized and the Obama campaign increased its efforts to draw a distinction between the two candidates and their willingness to invest in education. The drive to highlight Obama’s education platform resulted in off-topic debate answers, a series of attack ads and lots of talk about education on the campaign trail.
The Democrats have sought to portray Obama as the candidate who views investing in education as a priority, in contrast to his opponent, who they argue views it as an expense. Yet Romney surprised many educators by announcing point blank during the first debate that he will not cut education funding and disagreeing with his running mate, Paul Ryan, who supports shrinking the Pell Grant program for low-income students attending college.
The campaigns repeated their respective arguments that their candidate would be the one to repair the country’s school system in the final weekend before Election Day.
Michelle Obama spoke to students at Ohio’s Miami University Saturday, and highlighted her husband’s investments in Pell Grants. “When it comes to giving young people the education they deserve, Barack knows that like so many of you, we couldn’t have attended college without financial aid,” she said.
“You know that if the president is re-elected, he will say every good thing he can about education, but in the final analysis, he will do what his largest campaign supporters – the public sector unions – insist upon,” Romney said during a speech in Wisconsin on Friday. “When I am president, I will be a voice of the children and their parents. There is no union for the PTA.”
Although Obama’s education policies, such as supporting the expansion of charter schools and tying teacher evaluations to test scores, have rankled teachers and union leadership, union support for his reelection does not seem to have diminished. Both the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers have spent months targeting undecided voters in swing states and trying to convince them to vote for Obama.
“President Obama’s vision for the kids in America and the role education will play in their lives – I have no doubt that is absolutely in sync with ours,” National Education Association President Dennis Van Roekel told The Hechinger Report in September. “What we disagree with him at times is how to get there.”
As millions of Americans head to the polls Tuesday, most of the attention will be on the tight presidential race. But there are a number of ballot initiatives across the country that could significantly impact state education systems. Here’s a look at how voters could change policies on school choice, merit pay and more. Check [...]
As millions of Americans head to the polls Tuesday, most of the attention will be on the tight presidential race. But there are a number of ballot initiatives across the country that could significantly impact state education systems. Here’s a look at how voters could change policies on school choice, merit pay and more. Check back with The Hechinger Report after Election Day to find out the results.
Florida: A ballot initiative in Florida, if passed, will remove language from the state’s constitution that bans religious institutions from receiving taxpayer money. The measure does not explicitly reference education, but if it is successful, it will likely pave the way for private-school vouchers. While Florida currently has a voucher program for special education students and a tax credit scholarship program for low-income students, its statewide voucher program was ruled unconstitutional in 2006 because it gave taxpayer money to religious schools. If this language is removed, it seems likely vouchers could be reinstated.
Georgia: If Georgia voters approve a new constitutional amendment, the state will set up a special commission to authorize new charters. Such a commission existed until 2011, when the State Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional. Now, local school boards must first approve charter school applications. If the State Board of Education follows suit, the school can open. If the local school board rejects the application, would-be charter operators can still appeal to the state. The Georgia Board of Education can approve the charter, but it will only receive state and federal money – not local property-tax funds.
If the amendment passes, the state commission would be able to grant charters, regardless of local board support. Opponents say the change will take money and control away from local school systems. Proponents argue it will increase school choice across the state.
Idaho: A slate of controversial education laws could be overturned in Idaho on Election Day. The state’s teachers union is leading the charge against three recently passed laws through propositions on the ballot.
Proposition 1 aims to repeal a law mandating that 50 percent of teacher evaluations be tied to student growth – an increasingly common policy nationwide. The law also abolished teacher tenure, limited collective bargaining and eliminated incentives for early retirement. Proposition 2 would end Idaho’s new merit pay plan, which provides bonuses for teachers and administrators based on student growth on standardized tests. The law also allows for bonuses to be given to teachers who take hard-to-staff positions or leadership roles. And if a majority vote yes on Proposition 3, a law mandating that all students take two online classes before graduating high school will be repealed.
Maryland: Voters in Maryland will decide if undocumented immigrants will be eligible for in-state tuition at public universities. The Maryland legislature passed its own version of a federal bill that has yet to pass, the Development, Relief and Education for Minors (DREAM) Act, last year, which allowed undocumented immigrants who have attended high school in the state and first attend a community college to receive in-state tuition prices at Maryland colleges and universities. Opponents have argued the measure will encourage illegal immigration, but it looks likely the law will remain on the books. A Washington Post poll found 60 percent of voters supported it.
Washington: Washington is one of nine states that don’t allow charter schools. That could change if a ballot initiative passes that would allow the schools to open across the state. Such a measure has been rejected three times in the past. If the vote goes the other way this time, though, 40 charters may be authorized in the state over the next five years. A parent trigger provision is also written into the ballot. A majority of parents, or teachers, could vote to convert their traditional public school into a charter if the initiative passes.
In the final moments of the third presidential debate, a somewhat exasperated moderator, Bob Schieffer, tried to regain control of a conversation that had veered wildly off topic. The original question was about China’s currency manipulation, but after some back-and-forth, Republican nominee Mitt Romney was once again explaining why, despite his love of teachers, he [...]
In the final moments of the third presidential debate, a somewhat exasperated moderator, Bob Schieffer, tried to regain control of a conversation that had veered wildly off topic. The original question was about China’s currency manipulation, but after some back-and-forth, Republican nominee Mitt Romney was once again explaining why, despite his love of teachers, he doesn’t think hiring more of them would help the economy.
“I think we all love teachers,” Schieffer interjected.
It wasn’t the only time the candidates strayed from foreign policy—the topic of the debate—to American classrooms. Earlier in the night, President Obama had steered a discussion about America’s role in the world to his education policies, saying “we didn’t have a lot of chance to talk about this in the last debate.”
In fact, both Obama and Romney returned to education again and again in all three debates—often in response to questions that had little to do with the topic. The surge of interest in education in the final weeks of the campaign, including campaign ads that attack Romney’s views on class size and sidetracked answers during debates, follows months in which both candidates mostly ignored the subject. Education’s sudden popularity has to do mainly with Obama, who has pounced on it as a way to draw a contrast between himself and Romney on the most important issue in the campaign—the economy.
Shortly after Romney selected Paul Ryan as a running mate, the Democrats seized on Ryan’s budget proposal, which could lead to cuts in federal funding for schools, and began making a new argument about the Republican platform: Romney sees education as an expense, and Obama sees it as an investment. That’s the message Democrats have been pushing whenever possible. Obama and his surrogates, including former President Bill Clinton, have repeatedly brought up Obama’s support of early childhood programs, funding for K-12 schools, and college affordability.
Ed in the Election
It’s a concern Obama’s team hopes will resonate with the middle class, young people and his base. “He’s playing to a historical strength of Democrats,” said Andra Gillespie, a professor of political science at Emory University who has also worked as a pollster and political consultant. “What better time to talk about education issues than when people are back in school … or sending a child to college?”
Obama and Romney don’t actually disagree as much about education as they do about some other issues, such as tax policy. Romney has praised U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, raising speculation that he might even appoint him to his cabinet if elected. Both candidates support charter schools and pay-for-performance for teachers. When Romney put out his white paper on education policies in May, it drew little criticism from Democrats. The Obama campaign has essentially ignored Romney’s signature K-12 proposal, which could create a nationwide voucher system for low-income and special-needs students.
When it comes to education, the main difference between the two presidential candidates is Paul Ryan. The Ryan budget, which was presented to Congress in 2011 and which Romney said he would have signed, calls for a 20 percent cut to discretionary funding. Although the budget doesn’t specify how that decrease will be divvied up among departments, Obama has repeatedly claimed that Romney would cut education spending by a fifth, if not more. The Republicans contend that is not true.
The Democrats have bolstered their narrative of an austerity-focused Republican ticket using Romney’s repeated statements that hiring more teachers won’t help grow the economy and that decreasing class size shouldn’t be a priority. They’ve sought to draw a contrast between those views and the investments that Obama has already made in education while in office, such as increasing the number of low-income college students receiving Pell Grants. Obama also reformed the student loan program and held student loan interest rates down. These changes, Obama says, have made college more affordable and student debt less daunting.
“It’s a positive theme for the future they can emphasize, rather than an attacking theme,” said David Lublin, a professor at American University.
Obama’s education messaging has put Romney on the defensive. The Republican contender abruptly promised in the first presidential debate that he wouldn’t cut education spending at all. He went from backing Ryan’s plan to tighten Pell Grant eligibility, which would shrink the number of students who receive federal help, to saying he wants the program to grow.
Romney has also discussed the need to drive down college costs and has mentioned a merit aid program he started for top performers in Massachusetts that provided scholarships for those who opted to attend in-state public universities and colleges. (The program ended up hurting students more than it helped them.)
Both candidates are trying to woo not only middle class voters with these arguments, but young ones as well. Young voters were crucial to Obama’s 2008 victory. While the demographic still supports him, polls suggest they’re less likely to vote this time. “President Obama needs to shore up his base,” Gillespie said. “He wants to frame himself, unlike the Republicans, as a champion of students.”
Romney has tried to close the youth gap between himself and Obama by frequently assuring those in college that he’ll have jobs waiting for them when they graduate.
Even if the Democrats have found a Republican weakness to exploit, however, it may be too little, too late. “I don’t think it’s been made enough of a focus that it’s necessarily a crystallized issue for the election,” Lublin said, adding the Democrats should have “identified [Romney] as negative on this issue before he changed his mind back to center.”
In all likelihood, education won’t be the number-one issue for many voters on Election Day. But the Obama campaign is hoping that some of its pro-education messaging—helped along by the repeated talk of teachers and schools—will sink in.
This story also appeared on Slate on October 26, 2012.
In the swing states of Ohio and Florida, it’s crunch time for teachers unions, which in the final days of the campaign are getting out the vote for President Obama in droves — even though they disapprove of some of his policies. “The arguments have been made,” American Federation of Teachers (AFT) President Randi Weingarten [...]
In the swing states of Ohio and Florida, it’s crunch time for teachers unions, which in the final days of the campaign are getting out the vote for President Obama in droves — even though they disapprove of some of his policies.
“The arguments have been made,” American Federation of Teachers (AFT) President Randi Weingarten said as she mingled with fellow union members in Cincinnati last weekend and talked up the importance of the election. “This trip is about mobilizing and getting out the vote.”
Weingarten is urging members in both states to donate time to Obama’s reelection campaign by join canvassing and phone banking efforts. The AFT, along with the larger National Education Association (NEA), has organized pro-Obama events across the country for months. With just about two weeks to go until Election Day, Weingarten’s bus tours in Ohio and Florida are an attempt to rally teachers for a final push.
The traditionally strong relationship between teachers unions and Democrats has been strained in recent months. The tensions came to a head last month in Chicago, when union members went on strike, in part over tying teacher evaluations to student test scores. They went up against Obama’s former chief of staff, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel. In some cases, unions are even supporting Republicans this election cycle.
Ed in the Election
For the most part though, the unions are still throwing most of their money and manpower toward the Democrats, who have also supported policies they like—including a bill to hire nearly 300,000 more teachers, which was scuttled by Republicans in Congress. Weingarten and NEA President Dennis Van Roekel have portrayed Obama as someone who genuinely cares about education and Romney as someone who will gut the public system in favor of privatization.
Other teachers agree. “It could be a whole lot worse,” said Wellyn Collins, a retired teacher in Cincinnati, of Obama’s first term. “There are a lot of people that have a lot of enthusiasm for reelecting the President.”
Ohio is a hugely important swing state in the tight race between Obama and Republican candidate Mitt Romney. No president has won without the state’s 18 electoral votes since 1960.
“This election will be decided in O-H-I-O,” Weingarten said to a group of members just outside of Cincinnati on Friday. “Can we find it in ourselves to volunteer to knock on some doors? Can we find it in ourselves to volunteer to call some people?”
Both national teachers unions, which have a combined 4.5 million members nationwide, have requested that their members donate time to support union-endorsed candidates. Historically, teachers unions have been a large player in politics because of their deep coffers and thousands of members, who can be mobilized for get-out-the-vote efforts.
This year, the Ohio Education Association (OEA), the state affiliate of the NEA, is asking its 124,000 members to spend an hour or two of time calling potential voters, knocking on doors or attending a rally. All 26 offices across the state have phone-banking stations set up.
The union also mails flyers to their members urging them to support all the candidates the OEA has endorsed – and not just at the polls. President Patricia Frost-Brooks says she counts on teachers talking about the election with friends and community members as informal, word-of-mouth campaigning. Frost-Brooks, for example, goes down her Christmas card list, sending out notes explaining why she’s supporting certain candidates.
But neither union mandates any political involvement, and there’s no guarantee all—or even most—of the unions’ members will contribute to the get-out-the-vote efforts.
In Cincinnati, the Ohio Federation of Teachers (OFT) hopes that at minimum, 1 percent of its members will volunteer for a one- to three-hour shift recruiting voters. The union currently has about 5 percent of its members in the area participating in the “Walk, Talk or Pay” program, but Cincinnati leader Tom Frank is hopeful that number will be closer to 10 percent by Election Day.
Yet some union members in the area not only refuse to give their time to Obama, they won’t vote for him either. “We have a very conservative [section] within our union,” Frank said. He said his goal is to convince this group not to vote for Romney, because, Frank says, the Republican candidate gives too much support to charters and private education.
Many of Frank’s most dedicated volunteers are retired teachers, who have more time to give. The OFT held a summer training session for retirees to prepare them to organize and motivate other volunteers.
Collins, who attended the training session, spends six days a week talking to would-be voters to explain why they should vote for Obama. She says the effort feels worthwhile when she’s able to convince someone to register who wasn’t planning on voting at all.
A native of Kentucky, which has been a reliable Republican stronghold in the last three presidential elections, Collins often misses home – except during election season. “It’s the one time I really am happy I’m an Ohioan,” she said.
This story also appeared on NBCNews.com.
Former President Bill Clinton promised Thursday that if President Obama wins reelection, “nobody will ever have to drop out [of college] again because of the debt problem.” He was speaking at a rally featuring Bruce Springsteen in Ohio, in a major get-out-the vote effort in the swing state by the Obama campaign. Republican candidate Mitt Romney’s surrogates [...]
Former President Bill Clinton promised Thursday that if President Obama wins reelection, “nobody will ever have to drop out [of college] again because of the debt problem.” He was speaking at a rally featuring Bruce Springsteen in Ohio, in a major get-out-the vote effort in the swing state by the Obama campaign. Republican candidate Mitt Romney’s surrogates are also campaigning hard in the state, although they have focused more on jobs.
Clinton made the same sweeping claim about Obama’s success in attacking college debt in his speech at the Democratic National Convention last month. His argument is based on Obama’s student loan reform policies. The former president detailed them again for the attendees at the rally in Parma, Ohio, telling them that they were the “most important thing that Congress and President Obama have done in the past four years that nearly nobody knows about.”
Obama’s student loan reform removed banks from the process so that students can now borrow money directly from the government. The Democrats have claimed this change saved $60 billion, which is now being applied to Pell grants for low-income students and tuition tax credits for families. Students now pay back their loan at a fixed percentage of their income.
Obama also signed a bill this summer that kept interest rates on student loans from doubling. It’s a measure that Republican nominee Mitt Romney said he also supported.
Christine Gregory, a financial aid consultant who works with colleges and universities, attended the Parma rally and praised the president’s effort to keep interest rates low and his focus on community colleges. “They can turn out graduates who are matched to what the employer is looking for,” Gregory said.
Clinton also hit that topic in his speech. He highlighted a community college in the area that had partnered with the Cleveland Clinic to train adults with no college degrees for new healthcare jobs. “We need to build a community college network in America,” Clinton said. “Barack Obama will do it. His opponent will not.”
In the months leading up to the election, Ohio, with its 18 electoral votes, has emerged as an increasingly important swing state. No one has won the presidency without winning Ohio since 1960.
As Clinton and Springsteen stumped for Obama, Ohio’s Lieutenant Governor Mary Taylor and Congressman Bill Johnson wound their way through rural Jefferson County, near the Pennsylvania border in eastern Ohio, on a “Commit to Mitt” bus tour. They encouraged people to take advantage of Ohio’s early voting option and to volunteer on Election Day.
Speaking to about two-dozen people who gathered in the rain in Steubenville, Ohio, the Taylor and Johnson focused their remarks on jobs and the economy. Several people in the crowd said they were unfamiliar with Romney’s education policies, but at least one person was a fan of the former Massachusetts governor’s promises to expand school choice.
“I’m in strong support of educational vouchers,” said Steubenville resident Randolph Knob, who came out to hear Taylor speak. “I think parents should have a choice.” He sent his seven children to Catholic schools.
Knob said he believed growing the economy would end up improving education; the more money people earn, the more taxes the government can collect to spend on public sector jobs like teaching, he said. It’s the “best thing that could happen to teachers,” he said.
In an interview, Johnson also spoke of the educational benefits of a strong economy. He told The Hechinger Report that a healthy one would bring down the cost of education
There were no questions about education in the second presidential debate, held on Tuesday night, but both President Barack Obama and Republican candidate Mitt Romney brought it up often during a town hall meeting with undecided voters. Both men spoke largely in generalities about the need to improve the country’s schools and offered up their [...]
There were no questions about education in the second presidential debate, held on Tuesday night, but both President Barack Obama and Republican candidate Mitt Romney brought it up often during a town hall meeting with undecided voters. Both men spoke largely in generalities about the need to improve the country’s schools and offered up their track records as proof they would be able to do so.
In the past month, the Obama campaign has sought to draw a distinction between Obama’s and Romney’s willingness to invest in education. Carrying on that effort, Obama in particular steered the conversation toward education multiple times, making links between gun violence and school performance, and student loans and workplace equality for women.
While answering a question about assault rifles, Obama emphasized the importance of improving the country’s schools, reiterating claims that his opponent doesn’t want to hire more teachers. “When Governor Romney was asked whether teachers, hiring more teachers, was important to growing our economy, Governor Romney said that doesn’t grow our economy,” Obama said before he was interrupted by moderator Candy Crowley of CNN.
“The question, Mr. President, was guns here,” she said. “I need us to move along.”
Romney was not given a chance to respond, but has said that hiring teachers won’t help the economy. He did, however, agree with Obama’s basic premise that there was a relationship between violence and education.
Romney boasted about his own education track record, mentioning twice during the debate that Massachusetts’ schools were ranked first in the country during his tenure as governor. “I was able also to get our schools ranked number one in the nation, so 100 percent of our kids would have a bright opportunity for a future,” Romney said.
The state did perform the highest on the country’s National Assessment of Educational Progress when Romney was in office, but has consistently topped the list for decades. The state also does well – if not the best – in other ratings.
Romney also mentioned the John and Abigail Adams Scholarship Program on his list of education achievements in the state. The scholarship awarded students who performed in the top 25 percent of their class on high school exams with a full-tuition scholarship to in-state public universities and colleges. Research suggests that this program, however, may actually be detrimental to students because it entices them to choose lower quality options where it takes them longer to complete their degrees.
Obama took time to tout his track record as well, mentioning that he’d worked with governors in 46 states to institute reforms – such as adoption of the Common Core State Standards and changes to teacher evaluation systems – and worked to make college more affordable.
“We’ve expanded Pell Grants for millions of people, including millions of young women, all across the country,” Obama said while answering a question about equality in the workplace. “We did it by taking $60 billion that was going to banks and lenders as middlemen for the student loan program, and we said, let’s just cut out the middle man. Let’s give the money directly to the student.”
Romney has said that he wants to reinstate private banks in the student-loan market. He used the debate to reiterate a recently articulated support for Pell Grants, which go to low-income students.
His running mate, Paul Ryan, has called for tightening eligibility requirements for the grants and leaving unchanged the maximum amount available. Earlier in the month, Romney said he thought the maximum should increase along with inflation, and he repeated the idea Tuesday. “I want to make sure we keep our Pell Grant program growing,” he said.
Ask Mitt Romney to name his signature education initiative as governor of Massachusetts and he’ll likely answer that it was the John and Abigail Adams Scholarship Program. The scholarship, established in 2004, covers tuition at in-state public colleges and universities for students who score in the top 25 percent of their district on the state’s [...]
Ask Mitt Romney to name his signature education initiative as governor of Massachusetts and he’ll likely answer that it was the John and Abigail Adams Scholarship Program. The scholarship, established in 2004, covers tuition at in-state public colleges and universities for students who score in the top 25 percent of their district on the state’s 10th-grade math and English standardized tests.
“I got more hugs on Adams Scholarship day than I did at Christmas,” Romney said in a May speech about education. “And parents—more than once—told me that they had been worried they would not be able to afford college and that the scholarship would make a difference. Here in America, every child deserves a chance. It shouldn’t be reserved for the fortunate few.”
The cost of college is one of the major barriers for many poor students, so it seems logical that paying for their tuition would help more of them graduate from college. But research into the Adams Scholarship and the 12 others like it across the country suggests that these programs do little to improve college access because they typically go to students who already plan to attend college. If anything, these researchers say, the scholarships can widen existing income and racial gaps in college attendance.
A study released this summer by Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government found that Massachusetts students were likely to use the scholarship to attend a state school with fewer resources than private schools they might have gone to otherwise. The result? Students who use the scholarship actually take longer to graduate.
“This is a very unusual example of a situation in which we make money available to students, and they actually end up worse off,” said report co-author Joshua Goodman, an assistant professor of public policy at the Kennedy School.
Merit aid programs emerged in the early 1990s as a well-intentioned, politically popular attempt to help more people go to college. Even as state budgets have been slashed, the majority of these scholarships have survived.
They typically have three goals: to provide extra incentive for students to work hard in high school; to keep the best and brightest students in-state, thereby avoiding a state brain drain; and to improve college enrollment rates. And it’s not clear they’re succeeding at any of the three.
There’s little evidence that the promise of financial aid boosts high-school achievement, Goodman said. While some states have had success in keeping their highest-performing students in state for college, that doesn’t mean they stay after earning a degree.
And although there is some conflicting research on the topic, many of the studies that have been done on merit aid find that it does not have a large impact on college attendance, particularly for minority and low-income students.
Don Heller, dean of Michigan State University’s College of Education who has studied merit aid programs extensively, has found the money is more likely to flow to white or Asian students and those with a higher socioeconomic status.
Romney’s original proposal called for a scholarship program that would go to the top quartile of test takers statewide. After critics argued the plan would heavily favor middle- and high-income students, the scholarship was amended to be given out on a district-by-district basis. Even so, minority and low-income students have qualified at much lower rates than their peers.
The same is true in other states. In Michigan, for instance, 31 percent of all high-school seniors scored well enough on the state’s standardized exam to earn a merit scholarship, but just 7.1 percent of African-Americans met the threshold in 2000, prompting a lawsuit from civil rights groups. The scholarship was ultimately discontinued due to lack of funding in 2006.
“Most of the money goes to subsidize kids from upper-income, upper-middle-income [families] who would have been going to college anyway,” Heller said. “If the goal of states is to get more students to college, then merit scholarships are not very efficient.”
The main reason many of these programs fail to close access gaps, according to Goodman and Heller, is that the criteria used to determine scholarship eligibility—typically GPA and test scores—correlate with income.
Georgia’s HOPE scholarship program, one of the oldest and largest merit aid programs in the country, has doled out more than $6.6 billion to nearly 1.6 million students since 1993. To qualify, students must earn a 3.0 GPA in high school. If so, they get a free ride to an in-state public school. One study found, however, that 96 percent of students who used the HOPE scholarship were already planning to go to college.
At the same time, many of the students who meet the 3.0 high-school GPA criterion in Georgia are not prepared for college. About half of Georgia’s HOPE recipients lose their scholarships between freshman and sophomore year for failing to keep up the same GPA in college. (Most programs have a similar stipulation for scholarship renewal.) Only 30 percent keep the scholarship for all four years. Research has also found that HOPE students are more likely to withdraw from classes or take a lighter course load once in college.
And the Massachusetts scholarship isn’t as generous as it first sounds. Romney’s program covers tuition at $1,700 per year. But it does not cover fees, which can be several thousand dollars more in Massachusetts, or room and board. Goodman’s report found that students who earned the Adams Scholarship were likely to be swayed by the money despite the program’s relatively small impact on overall cost.
At Massachusetts’ Brockton High School, more the half of the 264 Adams Scholarship students eligible for the money in the class of 2012 decided to use it. Counselor Catherine Leger, noting that about 70 percent of her students are low-income, said that she promotes using the scholarship to help mitigate tuition costs.
But many students who decide to go to state schools, which often have limited funding, are turning down higher-quality options, Goodman found. The schools they end up attending have fewer resources, reflected in measures such as student-teacher ratios, and they have lower-quality advising, which means that students get less academic support and are more likely to be shut out of classes that become too full. “The student may not appreciate that those factors will affect their ability to complete degrees,” Goodman said.
So how should states help more students go to college? Goodman suggests spending funds that currently go to merit scholarships on improving state universities instead or creating new scholarship programs that factor in need as well as merit to provide a targeted incentive. The current programs were a well-intentioned idea, but it’s time to re-examine the data.
This story also appeared on Slate.com as part of an exclusive collaboration. Reproduction not allowed.
President Obama isn’t the big investor in education he has claimed to be on the campaign trail, Mitt Romney’s education advisor, Phil Handy, argued in a debate Monday with his Democratic counterpart. Obama advisor Jon Schnur countered that the math behind Romney’s budget plan virtually ensures there will be cuts to education if the former Massachusetts [...]
President Obama isn’t the big investor in education he has claimed to be on the campaign trail, Mitt Romney’s education advisor, Phil Handy, argued in a debate Monday with his Democratic counterpart. Obama advisor Jon Schnur countered that the math behind Romney’s budget plan virtually ensures there will be cuts to education if the former Massachusetts governor is elected.
Both Handy and Schnur used the debate to crystallize the differences between their respective candidate’s educational philosophies, which were sometimes blurred when Romney and Obama themselves debated earlier this month.
The debate was hosted by hosted by Teachers College, Columbia University, and sponsored by Education Week. (Disclaimer: The Hechinger Report is published by an independent institute based at Teachers College.)
Handy is a former chairman of Florida’s State Board of Education and a member of the Board of Directors at the Foundation for Excellence in Education, a nonprofit education reform group started by former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. Schnur is the co-founder and former CEO of New Leaders, a group that trains principals, and current executive director of America Achieves, a nonprofit aiming to improve school systems.
Schnur said Obama would continue to put more resources toward education, repeating one of President Obama’s standard arguments that investing in education will improve the economy. But Handy attacked the notion that Obama’s spending on education, including the $4.3 billion Race to the Top program, has been an investment. He argued that the administration’s programs have focused on short-term funding solutions, which have run out or will soon do so. “You can’t put a lot more money into it on a short-term basis and call it an investment,” Handy said.
He also echoed Romney’s claim from the first presidential debate earlier this month that a Romney administration would avoid cutting education. He said it would be possible to reduce the country’s deficit by changing entitlement programs while leaving education spending alone. He added, however, that Romney would not increase funding for early education. (Obama has pushed for more than $500 million for an Early Learning Challenge Fund, which Congress passed this year.) “You just can’t keep adding to the deficit,” Handy said.
Schnur countered that the president has made long-term investments, too, including large increases for the Pell Grant program to help low-income students pay for college. He also pointed to Obama’s modest increases in education funding since being elected. And if Romney wants to keep promises he’s made to increase defense funding and Social Security protections while still reducing the deficit, Schnur argued, it’ll be impossible not to touch education. “The Romney campaign on education is imprisoned by the Romney budget policy,” he said. “There’s no way the math holds up.”
Schnur said significant reductions to discretionary programs would have an impact on other programs related to poverty and children—such as federally subsidized school breakfasts and lunches for low-income children. Schnur also attacked Romney’s school choice plan as “meaningless,” saying it would be impractical to run on a national level.
Handy criticized the No Child Left Behind waivers granted by the Obama administration, which have allowed states to avoid sanctions for not reaching the law’s target for universal proficiency by promising to enact other education reforms. He described the waivers as too prescriptive and said allowing states to set different standards for different ethnicities was “soft bigotry”—echoing a favorite phrase of George W. Bush’s, who often spoke of the “soft bigotry of low expectations” in U.S. public education.
Schnur defended the waivers by evoking a widespread criticism of the No Child Left Behind law: As accountability ratcheted up, research found that states lowered standards in order to meet targets. “What you’re saying falls into the traps of the worst parts of No Child Left Behind,” he said.
The two men also squared off over college costs. Schnur praised Obama’s move to reduce the amount students must pay on their college loans once they enter the workforce. The loans of students who make continuous payments would be forgiven after 20 years instead of 25. Handy warned that forgiving student debt could become a whole new entitlement program. And although he supports the Pell Grant program, he also repeated a frequent Republican argument that the grants are driving up the cost of tuition.
Both men described candidates who had made education a top priority in their public lives—Obama as a senator and during his first term as president, and Romney as governor of Massachusetts.
But Romney’s belief that the federal government should stay out of the way of state leadership in education is problematic to Schnur. “I might vote for Mitt Romney for governor,” he said. “But I don’t think that’s a basis for electing a president.”
Republican vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan neglected to mention education when summarizing Mitt Romney’s five-point plan to improve the economy in Thursday night’s debate with Vice President Joe Biden. Overall, the issue was mentioned only a handful of times in a freewheeling discussion that covered domestic and foreign issues. While summarizing his running mate’s plan, Ryan [...]
Republican vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan neglected to mention education when summarizing Mitt Romney’s five-point plan to improve the economy in Thursday night’s debate with Vice President Joe Biden. Overall, the issue was mentioned only a handful of times in a freewheeling discussion that covered domestic and foreign issues.
While summarizing his running mate’s plan, Ryan said the second priority is to “help people who are hurting get the skills they need to get the jobs they want.” He was likely referencing the broader heading of that section in Romney’s paper: “Skills to succeed.” But Romney frequently mentions the specific goal of improving schools when describing this portion of the plan– and did so in his own debate last week.
There were no questions asked about education and neither candidate tried to steer the conversation toward it. When education did come up, it was only in passing. Ryan explained how Social Security survivor benefits helped him go to college and shared an anecdote about Romney paying the college bills for a struggling family.
While debating taxes, Biden emphasized his ticket’s plan to keep tax breaks in place for parents sending their children to college. “Why does my friend want to cut out the tuition tax credit for them?” Biden asked of Ryan.
In the final moments of the night, Biden mentioned education when slamming Ryan’s budget proposal, saying it would cut federal funding for education by $450 billion. That figure is extrapolated from Ryan’s plan to cut discretionary spending by 20 percent overall. The Romney-Ryan campaign has not specified what the exact decrease to the education budget would be, but during the presidential debate last week, Romney said–for the first time–that he would not decrease education funding at all.