Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, in his most detailed comments about education spending yet, pledged during Wednesday night's debate with President Barack Obama in Denver that he would not cut federal education funding if elected—even as he made the case that he's the best choice to rein in a mounting deficit.
"I'm not going to cut education funding. I don't have any plan to cut education funding and—and grants that go to people going to college...I'm not planning on making changes there," said Romney, who for the first time specifically addressed education spending—something he's been continually attacked on by the Obama campaign. "I don't want to cut our commitment to education. I want to make it more effective and efficient."
Check out the relevant remarks from Romney in the video at the end of this item.
Romney has been hammered by the Obama campaign since the former Massachusetts governor picked as his running mate Wisconsin Congressman Paul Ryan, the chairman of the House Budget Committee, who put forth an austere budget that would cut domestic discretionary funding, which includes education, by 20 percent.
If Romney is elected and holds education harmless, that would mean that as he seeks to slash the deficit he might have to make even bigger cuts elsewhere, and at a time when some in his party want to eliminate the U.S. Department of Education altogether.
Romney made his pledge at the University of Denver—in the first of three debates between the two candidates—after a relatively lengthy assault by Obama, who said:
"Governor Romney doesn't think we need more teachers. I do."
Obama said that the Romney-Ryan ticket would lead to a "gutting" of education. He talked about a teacher in Las Vegas he met who had 42 students using textbooks 10 years old. "That's not a recipe for growth," he said.
"This is where budgets matter because budgets reflect choices," Obama said. "Gov. Romney wants to cut taxes and potentially benefit folks like me and him, and to pay for it we're having to initiate significant cuts in federal support for education. That makes a difference."
Romney had a counterattack ready, criticizing Obama for putting so much money into green jobs, which he said could have been used to hire additional teachers.
"But you make a very good point, which is that the place you put your money just makes a pretty clear indication of where your heart is," Romney told Obama. "Look, I'm all in favor of green energy. $90 billion, that would have—that would have hired 2 million teachers. $90 billion."
Unsaid, of course, is that Obama, for his part, has made protecting teacher jobs a priority of his administration—both in the 2009 economic-stimulus package and the subsequent Education Jobs Fund.
Government's Role in Education
While pledging to protect education funding, Romney seemed to promote a less forceful role for the federal education department, explaining, "The federal government can get local and state schools to do a better job."
Romney touted his plan to turn Title I and special education funding into vouchers. "I want the kids getting federal dollars ... I want them to go to the school of their choice. All federal funds would follow the child." But Romney still has not explained how this would work, especially given that the federal government funds less than 10 percent of K-12 education, with the rest coming from state and local taxpayers.
Though they have very different education agendas, Obama and Romney both linked the quality of American schools to the country's economic future.
"First, we have to improve our education system," Obama said when moderator Jim Lehrer asked him how, exactly, he plans to create more jobs.
On the front-end of the 90-minute debate, Obama touted his plan to hire an additional 100,000 math and science teachers and create 2 million new slots in community colleges, while keeping college tuition low.
And Obama, who doesn't refer to Race to the Top much on the campaign stump, invoked his signature education-reform brand three times in the debate as having "prompted reforms in 46 states." (Clearly a reference to the common core, without naming the common-standards movement, which is a politically dicey thing for the federal government to support these days.)
Romney, too, stressed the education and jobs connection.
"I agree," Romney said. "Education is key ... particularly for the future." He emphasized the importance of improving worker training, and pledged to consolidate 47 different training programs in eight different federal agencies. "The overhead is overwhelming," he said. (His campaign had obviously read this report on program duplication by the Government Accountability Office.)
Obama again invoked education when the candidates squared off on how they would cut the deficit. As one example, he talked up how he cut 18 programs that weren't "helping kids learn."
He perhaps oversold this. It appears he was referring to his plan to consolidate a host of education programs into broader funding streams. Importantly, though, he wanted to keep the money, just not the programs. But Republicans in Congress cut many of them anyway.
Romney, on the other hand, said he would approach slashing the deficit by asking this question: "Is the program so critical that it's worth borrowing money from China for?" It was only later that, when directly attacked on education, he said he would protect education funding.
Photo: Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama shake hands before the first presidential debate at the University of Denver on Wednesday. (Charlie Neibergall/AP)