President Barack Obama had barely begun his acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention on Thursday before uttering a word Republican nominee Mitt Romney didn’t mention until he was three-quarters through: Education.
Obama addressed a handful of specific education goals, asking for help in recruiting 200,000 math and science teachers within the next 10 years and in improving early childhood education in the U.S. He also made a clear connection between education and a recovering economy.
“Help give 2 million workers the chance to learn skills at their community college that will lead directly to a job,” Obama continued. “Help us work with college and universities to cut in half the growth of tuition costs over the next ten years.”
Later in the speech, Obama touted his record in both k-12 and higher education. “For the first time in a generation, nearly every state has answered our call to raise their standards for teaching and learning,” Obama said, referring to the Common Core Standards.
That remark was the only allusion to his signature, controversial, Race to the Top program. In a competition for federal grants, states promised a slew of education reforms, including adopting the Common Core. Race to the Top, Obama’s largest k-12 initiative, however, has been missing from convention speeches.
The president’s speech included a dig at Romney’s “borrow money from your parents” advice to students, and continued his argument that education is a gateway to opportunity – and to the middle class – as it was in his own life.
“The government has a role in this,” he said. “But teachers must inspire. Principals must lead. Parents must instill a thirst for learning. And students – you’ve got to do the work. Together we can out-educate and out-compete any nation on Earth.”
The cheering crowd included over 200 delegates who are also members of the National Education Association (NEA), the country’s largest teachers union. Despite disagreements with Obama over policies like merit pay and tying teacher evaluation to test scores, both the NEA and the American Federation of Teachers have thrown their support behind Obama.
“I really do appreciate how he talks about the value of education, the role it plays not only in the lives of the individuals, the young people who are being educated, but the role education plays in our economic development,” NEA President Dennis Van Roekel said in an interview with The Hechinger Report.
Vice President Joe Biden did not focus on education, beyond telling his wife Jill – a lifelong educator – how proud he is of her work as a teacher. And the talk included two quick mentions of college cost and attainment.
On the final night of the convention, some speakers slammed Romney’s education track record and plans. Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter argued that “Romney doesn’t get it.”
“He recently visited a school in west Philly and told teachers he knows more than they do about what works for their students,” Nutter said. “He said class size doesn’t matter.’
“Doesn’t matter if our teachers can’t give our children the attention they need, that doesn’t matter?’’ Nutter asked.
At the school visit, Romney had cited a study that found no difference in class size among different countries as well as his own survey in Massachusetts that found the same thing. “Just getting smaller classrooms didn’t seem to be the key,” Romney said.
Research has demonstrated a murky relationship between class size and student performance; some studies have shown that there is no significant impact. Large class sizes, though, remain a major complaint of parents.
Nutter also criticized Romney for vetoing a bill that would provide universal pre-k in the state. (Romney said it was too expensive and he wanted to wait and see the results of a pilot program first).
And Montana Gov. Brian Schwietzer charged that Romney cut higher education by 14 percent and sent college cost skyrocketing.
“That’s okay for those who can afford it,” Schwietzer said.
As governor, Romney had a plan to consolidate the state’s higher education system that was never realized. Fees at state universities did increase from $2,959 to $4,836 during Romney’s term. And, during the state’s fiscal crisis, the university system was hit with about a 14 percent budget cut, according to the Boston Globe.
Overall, higher education was once again given more attention than k-12 issues. For the third time, Democrats brought college students on stage to praise Obama’s belief in them.
Admiral John Nathman, surrounded on stage by veterans, also took the stage to praise Obama’s work to improve veteran access to higher education.
Representative Donna Edwards (D-Md.) and the actress Eva Longoria also spoke of college costs, taking out loans to getting grants and working to pay for college.
“I did whatever it took and four years later, I got my degree,” Longoria said. “More importantly, I got a key to American opportunity. Because that’s who we are — a nation that rewards ambition with opportunity.”