Thursday night's GOP presidential debate offered the clearest sign yet that the Republican field is united on K-12 policy: Basically, they all want the feds out.
The highlight was a heated exchange on Race to the Top between Gov. Rick Perry of Texas and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, considered the front-runners.
Perry accused Romney of being the only person on stage in favor of "Obama's Race to the Top."
Supporting Race to the Top, Perry said, is "an important difference between the rest of the people on this stage and one person who wants to run for the presidency. ... Being in favor of the Obama Race to the Top. That is not conservative."
(Politics K-12 fact check: Actually, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich has also praised Race to the Top. In fact, he said he liked the program during a debate earlier this month, in which Perry also participated.)
Romney said, "Education has to be held at the local and state level, not at the federal level. We need to get the federal government out of education." That seems like a departure from his stance as a candidate back in 2008, when he was one of the few cheerleaders for the No Child Left Behind Act in the field.
He said he favors school choice, hiring effective teachers and paying them properly, high standards, and accountability through tests.
But the moderator pressed Romney, asking if Perry's contention on Race to the Top was untrue.
"I'm not sure exactly what he's saying," Romney replied. "I don't support any particular program that's he's describing."
(Politics K-12 fact check: Perry was probably referring to this Politico story, in which Romney is quoted as saying he thinks Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has "done some good things," apparently in reference to Race to the Top.)
Romney added that he thinks Duncan is going in the right direction by measuring teacher effectiveness and getting rid of teachers who aren't performing well.
It's worth pointing out that Massachusetts won Race to the Top. (Romney wasn't the governor at the time.) Texas, under Perry, was one of just a handful of states that never competed for the education reform grants.
The exchange, part of the FOX News/Google debate in Orlando, Fla., came in response to a question submitted by a teacher in Georgia, who wanted to know how the candidates planned to address what she sees as federal overreach on education policy.
Here's how the other candidates answered:
• Gary Johnson, a former governor of New Mexico, said he'd "promise to advocate the abolishment of the federal department of education." He said the feds give states 11 cents on every dollar they spend on education, but that it comes with "16 cents worth of strings attached. ... So what America does not understand is that is a negative to take federal money." He said he'd like to turn the money back to the states and have them be the "laboratories" of innovation. (I wonder where he's getting that 16 percent of strings from?)
• Former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania said he agreed with Johnson. In his view, the major problem with education is that it "doesn't serve the customer"—parents. He said he thinks that has to change, but he didn't say exactly how he'd make that happen.
• Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich said that the feds should "dramatically shrink" the U.S. Department of Education. And he said most states should adopt a program called "Pell Grants for K-12," which sounds like a school choice program. He also praised Florida's distance learning program.
• Rep. Ron Paul of Texas said, "If you care about our children, you'll get the federal government out of the business of educating our kids." And he said that the feds should stop enforcing No Child Left Behind because it doesn't work and "nobody likes it." He thinks Americans who opt out of the public school system should get tax breaks to help educate their kids.
• Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota said she got involved in politics because she was concerned about the education her foster kids were getting in public schools. As president, she said, she'd "pass the mother of all repeal bills" to get rid of the "entire federal education law." Then, she said, she'd "go over to the federal department of education. I'd turn off the lights, I'd lock the door, and I'd send all the money back to the states and localities."
• Herman Cain, the former CEO of Godfather Pizza, said the answer was to "primarily get the federal government out of trying to educate our kids at the local level."
• Jon Huntsman, a former governor of Utah and ambassador to China during the Obama administration, said he signed the second voucher bill in the United States. "I've actually done something on this," he said. And he touted his state's early childhood literacy program. But then he hit NCLB too, saying, "you've got to say no to unfunded mandates coming out of Washington. Localize, localize, localize."
Romney and Perry again traded jabs on Perry's decision to endorse in-state tuition for the children of undocumented immigrants.
There was also a new exchange on HPV vaccines. Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., was asked if she really believes that the vaccine is dangerous, as she said after the last debate. The American Academy of Pediatrics has given the vaccine the OK.
Bachmann said she "didn't make that claim, nor did I make that statement." She said a mother whose daughter had gotten the vaccine came up to her after the debate, concerned about the issue. "I only related what her story was," Bachmann said.
The main issue, she said, is that Perry mandated a health care decision on "all 12-year-old little girls in the state of Texas. ... That is not appropriate to be a decision that a governor makes. It's appropriate that parents make that decision." She said Perry "gave parental rights to a big drug company" that gave him campaign contributions.
Perry said he "got lobbied" on the vaccine issue by a 31-year-old woman with cervical cancer. And he's sorry that he chose to have families opt out of the vaccine, rather than opt in.
But he added, "The fact is I erred on the side of life, and I will always err on the side of life."