Former President Bill Clinton praised President Barack Obama’s support of community colleges and student loan reforms Wednesday night, in a stirring speech that took on Republican attacks of Obama while praising the president’s record.
Clinton highlighted the president’s policy that allows students to pay back loans based on income after graduation. “It means no one will ever have to drop out of college again for fear they can’t repay their debt,” Clinton said. “This will change the future for young Americans.”
Four speeches heavily focused on education, and with a slew of peripheral mentions, the issue continued to hold its place on a list of President Obama’s achievements during the second night of Democratic National Convention.
In contrast, the Republican party devoted just one speech to education over all three nights of its convention.
U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and former North Carolina Gov. Jim Hunt hit many of the same talking points, from merit pay to praising Obama’s Race to the Top initiative. The competition awarded states grants in return for promises to make certain education reforms.
And both Duncan and Hunt touted the President’s record in saving teaching jobs through his economic stimulus funds, with Hunt describing them as “recovery funds that literally kept our classrooms open.”
Duncan slammed Republican nominee Mitt Romney and his running mate Paul Ryan, saying that their budget would cut education by as much as 20 percent. The bill doesn’t specify how much education would be cut, but does call for large cuts in domestic discretionary spending; education falls under this umbrella.
“In order to cut taxes for millionaires and billionaires, Governor Romney will cut education for our children,” Duncan said. “That’s the difference in this election. They see education as an expense. President Obama sees it as an investment.”
Romney and Ryan believe that cutting taxes and eliminating regulations will spur job growth “by magic,” Hunt said.
“This is not a time for America to believe in magic,” he said. “This is a time to drive education forward.”
Hunt also talked about his own education record in North Carolina, noting that the state raised standards and increased teacher pay by 35 percent in four years. “Teachers have the hardest and most important job in America,” he said. “And we should appreciate them, respect them, and pay them well.”
Montana Superintendent of Public Instruction Denise Juneau hit the same message during her address, which also mentioned other ways Obama has helped Native Americans. Juneau, a member of the Mandan and Hidatsa tribes, is the first Native American woman in history to win a statewide election.
“Teachers do the work that matters and we cannot thank them enough,” she said. “For some students school is the only place where they get a hot meal and a warm hug. Teachers are sometimes the only ones who tell our children they can go from an Indian reservation to the Ivy League, from the home of a struggling single mom to the White House.”
Many speakers, including Clinton, mentioned Obama’s efforts to hold down interest rates for student loans. This summer, as a provision to keep rates down was set to expire, Congress came to a compromise that kept them from doubling. Romney also supported this.
For the second night in a row, Democrats brought out a Pell grant recipient to speak, praising Obama for doubling money given to the program, which provides low-income student with grants for school.
“When you’re trying to pay for college, every dollar makes a difference and President Obama has made a huge difference for us,” said Johanny Adames, a student at Miami Dade College. “Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan want to cut the Pell grants that made my future possible… If they don’t invest in my future, do they really believe in America’s?”
The DREAM Act, which Obama has steadfastly supported, also received special attention. The act, which Congress has voted down for more than a decade, would allow undocumented young people who met certain criteria to become eligible for permanent residency. This would allow them to get federal aid for higher education.
Obama circumvented Congress this summer with an executive order allowing these “DREAMers” to be safe from deportation. They still will not be eligible for federal loans and grants for education, however.
Obama did get credit for helping other Latino students attain their goals. “His education policies mean Hispanics will receive and estimated 150,000 more college scholarships,” said journalist and talk show host Christina Saralegui. “He is on our side.”
Unions in general were also singled out in a few speeches. “Many people forget… why we have safe workplaces, health care, the 40-hour week, middle-class wages, all the standards that most people take for granted. That did not just happen,” said Bob King, president of the International Union, United Automobile, Aerospace and Agricultural Implement Workers of America. “Strong unions and collective bargaining lifted millions out of poverty and built the great American middle class.”