President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, the GOP presidential nominee, tangled over class size, teachers, and education funding during their Monday night debate that was supposed to be exclusively centered on foreign policy.
Both candidates made it clear that they think a strong foreign policy begins with a strong economy at home, a premise they used to reiterate points they've previously made about K-12—and about each other's positions and records on education.
Obama, for example, slammed Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts, for proposing cuts to K-12.
"Cutting our education budget, that's not a smart choice, that will not help us compete with China," Obama said.
(Politics K-12 Fact Check: The budget plan put forward by Romney's running mate, U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan, would cut domestic discretionary spending by 20 percent, but it's not clear exactly how that would effect K-12 funding, although it would certainly put downward pressure on it. Romney has said he will not cut education, but has offered no details on what he means by that. Way more here.)
Obama criticized Romney for saying that using federal funds to put more teachers on the job won't help the economy. But Romney explained that, essentially, he doesn't see such spending as a federal responsibility.
"It's so critical that we make America once again the most attractive place in the world to start businesses, to build jobs, to grow the economy. And that's not going to happen by -- by just hiring teachers," Romney said. "Look, I -- I love to -- I love teachers, and I'm happy to have states and communities that want to hire teachers, do that. I -- by the way, I don't like to have the federal government start pushing its way deeper and deeper into -- into our schools. Let the states and localities do that. I was a governor. The federal government didn't hire our teachers."
Obama also hit Romney for cutting education spending in Massachusetts—repeating a line of attack mentioned frequently during the Democratic convention in Charlotte, N.C. In fact, according to this story, it was the Democratically-controlled legislature in that state that proposed the cuts.
And the president criticized Romney for saying that "class size doesn't matter." Those class size comments were the subject of an Obama campaign commercial, even though U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has questioned the value of small classes in some places.
Obama also took an opportunity to tout his own record on K-12, alluding to his administration's role in encouraging states to adopt the Common Core State Standards—although he did not mention them by name. He also again cited his plan to hire new mathematics and science teachers—a long-standing policy proposal that's gotten a lot of play on the campaign trail. Here's what he said to Romney:
If we've got math teachers who are able to provide the kind of support that they need for our kids, that's what's going to determine whether or not the new businesses are created here. Companies are going to locate here depending on whether we've got the most highly skilled workforce. And the kinds of budget proposals that you've put forward—when we don't ask either you or me to pay a dime more in terms of reducing the deficit, but instead we slash support for education, that's undermining our long-term competitiveness. That is not good for America's position in the world. And the world notices.
Romney came back, championing his own record in Massachusetts. During his tenure, students in the Bay State outperformed the rest of the country in reading and math, he said, alluding to scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP.
We kept our schools number one in the nation. They're still number one today. And the principles that we've put in place—we also gave kids not just a graduation exam [but an exam] that—that determined whether they were up to the skills needed to—to be able to compete.
Obama argued, however, that many of the reforms that Romney credited with boosting his state's K-12 system were put in place "ten years" before the governor even took office. (Fact Check: My colleague, Andrew Ujifusa, noted in this great blog post that Massachusetts has done well on the NAEP for many years, so it's tough to say whether Romney had much to do with it. That's also something folks who worked with Romney in Massachusetts have said. And apparently, Obama has picked up that line.)
There was also some brief discussion of sequestration, a series of automatic cuts set to hit nearly every federal program early next year unless Congress acts to stop them by coming up with an alternative. The cuts could mean an 8.2 percent cut to the U.S. Department of Education, according to the White House. Romney expressed concern about the impact of the cuts, particularly on the military. But Obama said, flatly, that sequestration "is not going to happen."
Both Obama and Romney also cited the importance of promoting strong education in other nations as an aspect of foreign policy. Romney listed it as a key element of nation building, and Obama noted that women in parts of the Middle East may not have access to good educational opportunities.
Photo: Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama walk past each other at the end of their last debate on Oct. 22 in Boca Raton, Fla. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP)