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Obama Talks Waivers, Common Core on the Campaign Trail

President Barack Obama spent a lot of his first term focusing on education policy, but voters have barely heard anything about it this election season.

That changed yesterday in Nevada, when Obama gave what's probably his most significant speech on the issue during the campaign, bragging about everything from the administration's plan to offer states waivers from pieces of the No Child Left Behind law to the Common Core State Standards Initiative.

Here's a snippet from his speech, at Canyon Springs High School in Las Vegas:

"Education should not be a Democratic or a Republican issue. It's an American issue. It's about what's best for our kids. And I haven't just talked the talk, I've walked the walk on this. Over the past four years, we've broken through the traditional stalemate that used to exist between the left and the right, between conservatives and liberals. We launched a national competition to improve all our schools. We put more money into it, but we also demanded reform. We want teachers to be paid better and treated like the professionals that they are. But we're also demanding more accountability, including the ability of school districts to replace teachers that aren't cutting it."

Obama also continued to hammer on the House budget plan authored by presumptive GOP nominee Mitt Romney's veep-pick, Paul Ryan. That's been a big theme of the Obama campaign's recent rhetoric (and campaign commercials.) He's also chiding House Republicans (including Ryan) for not going along with his plan to spend an additional $55 billion to avert education layoffs and fix up schools.

"Republicans in Congress, led by Congressman Ryan, joined together to block the bill that would have helped states hire and retain more teachers. As a result, tens of thousands of teachers are not coming back to school this fall. Now, not only is that unfair to our kids, it's foolish for our future," Obama said.

It's interesting that Obama is taking at least partial credit for the Common Core State Standards initiative. Plenty of folks would argue that giving states that adopted common core an edge in Race to the Top helped give the initiave momentum, but there's also concern that the effort could falter if it becomes too politicized.

Obama also implied that Nevada's waiver will help keep folks in the state from "teaching to the test." But there's nothing in Nevada's waiver that suggests that the state will test less often. Also, the Obama administration steered $350 million into helping states create new tests—they're certainly not backing away from assessment.

Of course, Obama folks would probably argue these new tests will measure higher-order thinking skills so teachers won't have to "teach" to them in a drill-the-kids kind of way. But it's hard to know for sure how instruction would change, since no one has seen the actual tests yet.

And he hit Romney for telling a teacher in Philadelphia earlier this year that class size doesn't matter.

That seems to be another new Obama campaign theme, even though U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has expressed somewhat similar reservations. Check out a Politics K-12 fact check on the issue here.

Obama also said he "worked with Republicans and Democrats to fix No Child Left Behind." Congress hasn't yet passed a bipartisan reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, so it's tough to say NCLB has been "fixed" in a bipartisan way. Of course, it's certainly true that his administration worked with the GOP governors who applied for waivers.

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