Few policymakers would disagree that improving the U.S. education system is critical for the future health of the American Project. So why isn’t education a huge issue in the Republican presidential campaign? An analysis of 20 Republican presidential debates found just 1.4% of the questions involved education. Certainly the questioners themselves deserve a good portion of the blame. Maybe they could’ve cut back on the 12% of questions devoted to campaign strategy.
But none of the candidates have made education a priority issue, and the debate questions reflect that. In an interview with the Huffington Post, Michelle Rhee, the former chancellor of Washington, D.C. public schools who now heads the advocacy group StudentsFirst, called the lack of focus on education “ridiculous,” adding: “What people are failing to recognize is that we are not going to be able to ensure that our economy recovers in the long term and that this country regains its position in the global marketplace until we fix our education system.”
Now the candidates have education ideas, to be sure. Mitt Romney has a plan, but it is mostly about worker training. Rick Santorum spends a few paragraphs on education. I think this pretty much sums up his approach: “The federal role in education is very limited.” Newt Gingrich has a more expansive proposal, but feels like a bit of a hodgepodge. Ron Paul pretty much just wants to abolish the Education Department and be done with it. And maybe Paul’s approach best sums up the mood of GOP primary voters. I don’t know.
One former GOP candidate with a pretty comprehensive education reform plan. Here’s the basic thrust: “Our path consists of two overarching goals: first, introducing market forces into the education system; and second, maximizing transparency so state and local leaders can identify problems and achieve better outcomes.”
And here are some of the more specific Huntsman policy proposals:
1. End No Child Left Behind. Jon Huntsman was the first governor to pull out of No Child Left Behind, which was a well-intentioned law but a ‘blunt instrument’ that failed to specifically address the problems it set out to rectify.
2. Promote universal school choice. This may include instituting voucher programs, enabling charter schools, or allowing parents to choose between public schools.
3. Unshackle Schools. Some possible evolutions in deregulation include performance based pay, teacher assessments, rolling back tenure, or changing age-based promotion policies and other regulations that restrict the ability of our schools to deliver increasingly individualized education.
4. Promote Common Core Standards (CCS). Common Core standards are clear national standards that apply to grades 3 through 12 in mathematics and language arts that are already being implemented by 45 states and are designed to be competitive internationally.
5. Accountability. Communities whose schools fail to meet Common Core benchmarks should not be rewarded. A possible consequence could be restricting access to federal resources. President Huntsman will also use his bully pulpit to encourage adaptation of a parent trigger wherein a significant number of concerned parents could induce state action. On the other hand, principals who demonstrate sustained innovation and success should be rewarded and held up as models for other educators.
6. Reorient the Department of Education. Jon Huntsman will transition the department toward this defined responsibility, transforming it into a more efficient Education Advisory Council, similar to the United States Trade Representative.
7. Prioritize teacher compensation. Perhaps the single greatest factor in determining student achievement is the quality of the teacher, the vast majority of whom work long hours for mediocre pay. Quality teaching should be encouraged by rewarding the best teachers with higher salaries, which will create an important incentive for excellence and help attract talented people to our nation’s teacher corps.
8. Invest in education research. There is a role for the federal government in providing best practices. Government can provide analysis on what has and has not worked in different states, to help states discover what policies will work best for their children.
9. Early childhood intervention. The Head Start program has failed to meet its laudable goals. Jon Huntsman will block grant Head Start funds to the states, allowing them to create unique early childhood education programs.
10. Invest in research. Jon Huntsman’s administration will increase funding for pure non-commercial research in the “hard” sciences at America’s research universities. This will advance science and help increase and protect America’s edge in human capital.
11. Reform Immigration Laws. Jon Huntsman’s administration will reform immigration laws so our universities are able to attract and retain the best students and faculty. Specifically, in terms of higher education, he will take three immediate steps:
– Offer Foreign Graduates of American Universities Green Cards. As president, Jon Huntsman will ensure that foreign graduates of American universities have the opportunity to stay in the United States and are encouraged to pursue citizenship.
– Recruit Foreign Talent. Under President Huntsman, every United States Embassy will be charged with working with the private sector to continuously identify and recruit local talent. We can start that process by making sure that graduates of elite foreign universities who receive degrees in science, technology, engineering and mathematics have the ability to immigrate to the United States if they so choose.
– Expand the H-1B Visa Program. Jon Huntsman will work with the private sector and take steps to immediately expand and strengthen the H1-B visa program.
12. The German Model. One effective and market-oriented solution is working closely with cutting-edge private sector employers to ensure that available technical and community college training is in line with those employers’ needs for future employees. Germany does very well in the context of matching vocational and two-year college type education to needs in the job market. Current estimates project that there are at least three million job openings in the U.S. unfilled due to a lack of skilled workers. As president, Jon Huntsman will rollback EEOC regulations that have made it hard for employers to set hiring expectations without appearing to engage in discrimination.
13. Confront higher education cost inflation. This is a complicated phenomenon, but a key driver has been federal student loan guarantees that match price inflation by colleges. Jon Huntsman will begin the process of getting the federal government out of the student loan business, moving toward a sustainable private market for student loans, which ultimately will enforce market discipline on the higher education sector. Ultimately this could involve bankruptcy reform, which would force market discipline on private sector lenders and encourage students to plan their education around real world demands.
A glance through that agenda reveals why Republican presidential candidates aren’t talking more about education reform. While the Huntsman proposal contains a great deal of decentralization and deregulation, it also maintains an active role for the federal government in setting standards, making recommendation and doing research. Tax dollars would still be spent. But people who believe in the importance of education — and the importance of markets and innovation and decentralization — should push for the GOPers to make it a big issue now and in the fall.