College affordability, global competitiveness, and Republican threats to education spending were consistent themes for governors and other high-profile speakers on Tuesday's first night of the Democratic National Convention.
"You can't be pro-business unless you're pro-education," declared San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro, who gave the keynote speech, in drawing a sharp and critical contrast between President Barack Obama and GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney on support for schools.
And Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley—who touted his own state's high-performing school system—derided what he characterized as Republican efforts to cut investments in education, asking, "How much less education would be good for our children? How many fewer college degrees would make us more competitive as a nation?"
Meanwhile, some of Obama's biggest K-12 education initiatives, including his Race to the Top school redesign competition and his School Improvement Grant turnaround efforts, also got attention as a parade of speakers attempted to paint the GOP as the party willing to cut education access and opportunity.
In his enthusiastically received speech, Castro highlighted efforts in San Antonio to expand prekindergarten and to provide help to students with test preparation and help in seeking financial aid for college.
The 37-year-old mayor framed those efforts as steps to reduce an opportunity gap he observed in the experiences of students in his own high school class and his fellow college students at Harvard and Stanford universities. Castro also hammered home the theme that Democrats will continue to support the federal Pell Grant program for disadvantaged students, which Democrats say would be cut under GOP vice-presidential nominee Paul Ryan's budget. Republicans contend that fund would be channeled to the neediest students.
But Andrea Saul, a spokeswoman for the Romney campaign, quickly put out a statement criticizing the Democrats and Obama for their "divisive politics" and track record on the economy. Throughout the day, Republicans criticized Obama for what they see as excessive federal spending. The size of government, including funding for K-12, has emerged as a major ideological gulf between the two parties.
During a fiery speech earlier in the evening, Newark Mayor Cory Booker highlighted the importance of education as the "most critical investment" the country needs to make to succeed in the future economy.
But Booker steered clear of mentioning vouchers, likely a controversial topic among many of the Democratic delegates. (Contrast that with the strong emphasis Republicans put on school choice at the GOP convention in Tampa last week.)
Instead, Booker reiterated the need to support Pell grants, and praised Obama's focus on early-childhood education. He also said it was the country's duty to "out-educate" the rest of the world in order to maintain its competitiveness.
Education policy was also on the mind of Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick, who talked about Orchard Gardens Elementary in Boston. Its "reputation was a wreck" before the Obama administration policies cleared the way for new "tools" that allowed for Orchard Gardens to have a longer school day, use experiential learning, and employ stronger "teaching standards and accountabilities."
"Today's Republicans and their nominee for president tell us that those 1st graders are on their own: on their own to deal with poverty, with ill-prepared young parents ... with a job market that needs skills they don't have, with no way to pay for college," Patrick said.
In a nod to teachers' unions, Patrick also said Massachusetts had achieved changes to its public schools with labor at the negotiating table, while Romney only talked about such changes.
Education also made it to the top of North Carolina Gov. Bev Perdue's speech, who spoke in general terms regarding the Obama administration's education achievements, even though North Carolina won a Race to the Top grant.
Perdue, who declined to run again this year, told the crowd that Obama has made schools a "top priority," praising the administration's focus on "education reform and innovation."
Like Booker, Perdue also emphasized the broad ramifications of a strong national educational system. President Obama knows that education is the difference-maker for every child, and it's the pathway to success in the global economy," she said.
And some of the president's key initiatives made their way into video presentations—including one featuring the president himself, who talked about the opportunities he received through education and touting the Race to the Top program. A separate video highlighted the impact of the SIG program at North High School, in Des Moines, Iowa.
Photo: San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro addresses the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C., on Tuesday. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)