During their second duel of this campaign, President Barack Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney on Tuesday night framed the issue of education as an economic one.
The first question at the town-hall style debate at Hofstra University, in Hempstead N.Y., came from a college student who asked what the candidates were going to do to make sure a good-paying job awaited him upon graduation.
Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, had a two-prong answer: Make it easier for students to afford college, and make sure there are good jobs once they graduate.
Romney said he would keep the Pell Grant program "growing." This elevates a position he has made before to a much smaller audience, and continues to divert attention from the budget his running mate authored. House Budget Committee Chairman and Republican vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan has proposed to trim eligibility, focusing it on the neediest students.
Romney's remarks were similar to those he made in a Univision forum in September, when he said he wanted to grow grants at the rate of inflation. (Note: There's a $7 billion Pell shortfall that still needs to be closed, according to the New America Foundation.)
Obama, for his part, said one of the keys to economic success is for "everybody to get a great education." He said he has worked hard to create more community college slots for worker retraining. He touted his administration's success in removing banks as the federal college loan middlemen, which he said has freed up money for Pell.
Obama also used the Pell topic to appeal to the much-coveted women's vote. "We've expanded Pell grants, including for millions of young women," he said.
Little New Ground
The debate offered little new in the way of insights into both candidates' education platforms. But it came on the heels of three other substantive debates in which education played a prominent role—including the first meeting between the two presidential candidates, and subsequent debates between advisers for the two.
In their first debate earlier this month, Obama and Romney both raised education as a key issue in moving the economy forward. Romney surprised education policy wonks by declaring he would not cut education funding even as he seeks to rein in the federal deficit.
On Monday, adviser Jon Schnur, for the Obama campaign, and Phil Handy, an adviser for Romney, squared off at Columbia University's Teachers College, where we learned that the waivers granted by the Obama administration under the No Child Left Behind Act would be in serious jeopardy if Romney is elected.
And earlier Tuesday, education advisers Martin West (for Team Romney) and Schnur clashed at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, where they talked about the Common Core State Standards, waivers, and other hot education topics.
In contrast, in the vice-presidential debate last week, education barely came up.
DREAM Act Gets Focus
During Tuesday night's debate, when the topic turned to immigration, Romney appeared to flip-flop on the DREAM Act, which would give undocumented young people a path to citizenship. During the GOP primary season, he said that although he supported a path for servicemen and women, he would veto the broad legislation. At Tuesday's debate, he said such young people "should have a pathway to becoming a permanent resident."
Obama reiterated his longstanding support for the DREAM Act.
Education did come up one other time at this debate: When one voter asked what the candidates would do about assault weapons. In one of the biggest pivots of the night, Romney said good schools could perhaps bring down violence, and he touted Massachusetts No. 1 ranking for schools. Later, in a closing statement, Romney brought up that he was able to give "100 percent" of his students a "bright opportunity" for the future, clearly in reference to his recorded comments that 47 percent of voters would never vote for him.
Obama also seized on the assault-weapons question to allude to the common core standards (although not by name), and his school turnaround program that he said has resulted in "gains in math and science."
"If our young people have opportunities, then they're less likely to engage in these violent acts," Obama said.
Photo: President Barack Obama and Republican presidential candidate Gov. Mitt Romney speak during the second presidential debate at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y., on Tuesday. —Charles Dharapak/AP