In the first substantive remarks from the Mitt Romney campaign on No Child Left Behind waivers, adviser Phil Handy indicated that the flexibility granted this year to 33 states and the District of Columbia would be in serious jeopardy if the former Massachusetts governor wins the presidency.
In a substantive 90-minute debate at Teachers College, Columbia University that featured some pointed arguments and sparring, Handy squared off against Jon Schnur, an education adviser for President Barack Obama. The debate, co-sponsored by Education Week, filled in many of the blanks for those who wanted to know more about Romney's positions on education.
On the issue his campaign has been most silent on — the fate of the waivers the U.S. Department of Education and Secretary Arne Duncan have granted so far from NCLB—Handy didn't outright say Romney would get rid of them. But he broadly hinted at it.
The waivers are "not about flexibility. They're very prescriptive. We think they have led to a very unfortunate result: ... many of these states are setting different accountability standards for different constituencies of children," said Handy, a former chairman of the Florida State Board of Education. "I think it's wrong." What he's referring to—different school performance standards for different groups of kids—is becoming a big policy issue in many states, and a messaging problem for the Obama administration.
Handy said like all executive orders, the waivers would be reviewed under a Romney administration. He said a Romney administration would push for reauthorizing NCLB, and if that doesn't happen, then it would try to return to NCLB as written.
Schnur, the founder of New Leaders for New Schools, defended the waivers, which President Obama announced last year as Congress continued to stall in rewriting the law. He said the president is deeply committed to equity, and that retreating on the waivers would be to return to the "worst parts" of NCLB.
Voucher Plan Details
Another area that Handy shed light on was Romney's plan to send Title I and special education dollars directly to parents as vouchers so they can use them at the school of their choice. Handy acknowledged that, since the federal government only pays an average of about 10 percent of a child's K-12 education, Romney's voucher plan would have to start small. States would be encouraged to match those dollars, and seven to eight would probably do so right away, he said.
"The federal government's role should be to get this choice started," Handy said.
Schnur retorted: "It's an interesting idea that doesn't seem workable."
Schnur used the debate to continue to offer voters what he portrayed as a stark choice between the two candidates: that President Obama sees education as an investment, while his opponent sees it as an expense that can be cut.
Handy's points on school choice illustrated his overarching themes of the night: that the federal role in education should be limited to providing choice and transparent data on the quality of schools. And, it became clear, the role is also to not add to the deficit under a Romney presidency.
Handy reiterated a surprising pledge Romney made in the first presidential debate—that he wouldn't cut education funding. Handy said the crux of the funding crisis is over entitlement programs such as Social Security. "You can easily hold public education harmless without impacting the creation of more deficits," he said.
But Romney won't invest more in education either, Handy said. That includes in areas such as common assessments to match the common core, or in early education. "You just can't keep adding to the deficit," Handy said.
He did say, however, that for Head Start, there would be "different criteria and different elements of success." He criticized Head Start for being "much more of a social experience and not preparing children for school."
There is one exception to that no-extra-money mantra from Handy. He said Romney would support more investment in education research.
Schnur hammered his opponent repeatedly for this fiscal attitude, making the case that even if education is held harmless, will lead to significant harm to K-12. "The view of budget policy that the governor has...I do think it represents a significant contrast. The question is what you campaign for as president. Will you focus on education if elected? The president will."
Viewers didn't hear any new ideas, really, about what Obama would do in a second term. Schnur said he would make early education a "major focus," declaring that there is "nothing he is more passionate about."
He also said that Obama would continue to stress a three-part plan to "professionalize" teaching careers by pushing career ladders, improving teacher-prep programs, and creating incentives. Schnur reiterated the president's support of using achievement and test scores as one of many factors in evaluating teachers.
Handy, for his part, said he agreed that teachers should be evaluated on student achievement as well, but disagreed that the federal government should require such evaluations. (It's worth noting that Romney's own plan for Title II professional development dollars would do just that—require evaluations to be based in part on student achievement.)
Photo: Phil Handy, left, an education adviser for Mitt Romney, and Jon Schnur, an education adviser for President Barack Obama, debate education policy on Oct. 15 at Teachers College, Columbia University. (Emile Wamsteker for Education Week)