Two months before his 2008 election, Barack Obama addressed a roomful of Ohio public school teachers, praising their long hours and talking about his daughters' starting 2nd and 5th grade. It was a typical Democratic education speech, with vows of support for early childhood education, for building up programs that help students from" the day they're born until the day they graduate from college."
Then Obama departed from the usual feel-good talking points. He touted competition, charter schools, and school choice. "I believe in public schools, but I also believe in fostering competition within the public schools," he said, "And that's why, as president, I'll double the funding for responsible charter schools."
That wasn't an applause line, for sure, but it did serve another purpose: to position the candidate as a different kind of Democrat, one willing to embrace ideas from across the aisle and push back against his own teachers union base. It also put Republicans on notice: Obama wouldn't be bashful about encroaching on their territory on education.
Two and a half years later, Republicans are still trying to figure out how to respond to Obama, a Democratic president with education reform bona fides. To date, the most prominent leaders of the GOP have either been mute on the topic of education or heaped praise on the president. Indiana governor Mitch Daniels lauded the Obama administration and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan in a speech he made in April 2011: "We need to prepare our young people with the highest possible preparation wherever they come from, wherever they are headed," he said. "[Duncan] is the nation's champion, along with the president he serves, of that ideal."
As the winter primaries get closer, don't expect much more of that.
The One That Got Away
Republicans began this election season in search of a candidate and a message. The May withdrawal of Mitch Daniels from the Republican primary race left the GOP without one of its most visible education leaders. The Midwestern governor had become a darling among education reformers for making school choice and quality teaching his top priorities.
In his final State of the State speech in Indianapolis, Daniels said that if he did nothing else in 2011, he wanted to "hitch his legacy" to education reform. Watching from the audience that day were students on waiting lists to get into various charter schools. He urged state lawmakers to create a voucher program that would allow kids to use public dollars for private school tuition. He talked for 30 minutes about improving teacher quality. And by the end of the legislative session, he got just about everything he wanted in a school reform plan: expansion of charter schools, private school vouchers, and college scholarships for students who graduate high school early.
But after flirting with a presidential run, Daniels bowed out, leaving to those still in the running the task of building a GOP education platform.
The Race Is On
After a slow start, the Republican field is finally starting to take shape. Former governors Mitt Romney and Tim Pawlenty have announced their election bids, and former GOP house speaker Newt Gingrich is also running. As of June 2011, Representative Michele Bachmann of Minnesota and former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum had entered the race. Republicans await announcements from Sarah Palin and Texas governor Rick Perry.
In staking out platforms in the coming months for what will likely be a feisty GOP primary, Republicans face two quandaries regarding education policy: They need to distinguish their positions from Obama's centrist education reforms, and they need to win over the Republican base, fueled by some Tea Party energy, that will push for the U.S. Department of Education to be dismantled altogether. …