President Obama argued that his economic policies would do more to protect the needs of students and schools than those of his Republican opponent, Mitt Romney, in a speech Thursday night in which he accepted his party's nomination to pursue a second term.
Obama's address at the Democratic National Convention stuck mostly to broad themes articulating his view of government's important role in society—a role which includes supporting a strong education system, and the needs of impoverished students within it.
"I refuse to ask students to pay more for college, or kick children out of Head Start programs," Obama said, offering a list of programs and services that might otherwise get cut, "all so those with the most can pay less."
The line was a jab at Romney, whose polices Democrats believe favor low taxes for the wealthy over other priorities, and those of his running mate, Paul Ryan, who as a member of Congress from Wisconsin proposed deep cuts to discretionary spending.
Obama later talked about college aid and job training programs, in which "government has a role," then added, "but teachers must inspire, principals must lead, parents must instill a thirst for learning, and students, you got to do the work. I promise you, we can out-educate and out-compete any nation on earth."
In addition, Obama gave an apparent nod to the Common Core state standards effort, an state-led attempt to create more consistent academic benchmarks across the country, which his administration has backed.
"For the first time in a generation, nearly every state has answered our call to raise their standards for teaching and learning," the president said.
Obama also offered a few forward-looking—though not new—policy ideas in education. He said he wants to recruit 100,000 new math and science teachers, and he proposed cutting half the growth of college tuition costs, with both goals to be accomplished over the next decade.
Obama has put forward similar targets for hiring math and science educators during his term in office, and he proposed measures to try to control higher education costs through a college-focused version of his administration's Race to the Top grant competition. Neither of those efforts has made it into law. (The Romney campaign noted after the speech that the president's education proposals were not new.)
Vice President Joe Biden, who spoke before Obama at Time Warner Cable Arena, touted the administration's support for the DREAM Act, a measure that would give some undocumented immigrants a route toward citizenship, if they obtain a college education. Romney has opposed the measure, and Republicans in Congress have blocked it.
In June, the Obama administration circumvented that blockade by issuing an order saying that many young undocumented individuals would not be deported if they met certain conditions, such as graduating or being enrolled in high school.
"Governor Romney believes that kids, the kids we call dreamers—those immigrant children who were brought to America at a very young age, through no fault of their own—he thinks they're a drag on America," Biden said.
"They've chosen to do right by America, and we should do right by them."
The Democrats' message was greeted with scorn by former New Hampshire Governor John Sununu, a Romney supporter, who said the president offered a "predictable litany of excuses" for the country's economic struggles, without a blueprint for reducing spending—a Republican priority.
"It's time to move away from the path of more regulations, more taxes, more spending, and more borrowing," Sununu said in a statement. "It's time to put our trust in the energy and ingenuity of the American people."
Romney, he said, will "return America to a path of economic growth and job creation."
Democrats this week have praised Obama's education record mostly in broad terms tailored for a national audience—touting his support for college financial aid and K-12 spending, and warning that Romney and Ryan would take a very different path, slashing domestic programs in a way that would undermine education.
At the same time, speakers at the convention have largely avoided dwelling on some of the cornerstone policies of Obama's education agenda, which have angered some teachers and the unions who represent them. Those policies—which have drawn rare praise from some Republicans at the state and national level—have included charter school expansion, merit pay for teachers, and support for tough steps for turning around schools.
Obama came into office at a time when the American economy was rapidly losing jobs, as the deep downturn known as the Great Recession took hold in communities and school districts—a bleak period the party sought to describe through speeches and video presentations on Thursday.
His administration devoted billions of dollars in public funding to efforts to preserve jobs in the country's school districts—which were suffering from cuts in state funding and evaporating local tax revenue—first through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act in 2009, then in 2010 through the Education Jobs Fund, which put $10 billion to try to avert teacher layoffs.
Those efforts were strongly opposed by congressional Republicans, who said there was little evidence the spending would have an effect on long-term employment. GOP lawmakers have blocked Obama's more recent proposals for emergency jobs funding for the states.
Defending Obama on Jobs
Obama's efforts to save jobs were strongly defended by Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter and Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer on Thursday.
Under Obama's presidency, "we are demanding more from our schools," Schweitzer said, "but we're backing up that demand by investing more in teachers, increasing financial aid, and doubling funding for Pell Grants."
Nutter credited the president for "saving 400,000 educators' jobs and giving states the flexibility to shape their schools"—possibly a reference to Obama's decision to grant states waivers from provisions of the No Child Left Behind Act, which many state and local officials have come to regard as a heavy handed, intrusive federal policy.
The mayor also alluded to a Romney visit to a Philadelphia school a few months ago—at which the GOP nominee was heckled—and depicted the Republican as out of touch with schools' needs.
"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?"
Republicans have praised Romney's record on education in Massachusetts, which is consistently one of the nation's top-performing states. But Nutter accused Romney of vetoing efforts to expand prekindergarten and cutting K-12 budgets.
"To Mitt Romney, education is a luxury," said Nutter adding. "He failed his students."
(Let's fact check: According to a 2007 Education Week story, after taking office in 2003, Romney inherited a budget deficit of $600 million, which ballooned to $2.7 billion for fiscal 2004. "Though Mr. Romney spared education in his budget proposals, the legislature made cuts anyway, angering the unions—which still blamed the governor," my colleague Michele McNeil reported.)
As governor, Romney indeed rejected a plan to create universal prekindergarten, deciding that it was too costly.
Obama's education record was given a more personal boost from Angie Flores, a student at Miami-Dade College, who used her introduction to Jill Biden, wife of vice-president Joe Biden, to plug teachers, whose votes Democrats traditionally count on. Jill Biden teaches at a community college.
"We all know that education leads to opportunity, and that education begins with a great teacher in every classroom," Flores said. "A lot of people know Dr. Jill Biden as our nation's second lady. But she has an even more important title: teacher."
Photo: President Barack Obama addresses the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C., on Thursday. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)