Education Policy and Republican Frontrunners Mitt Romney and Herman Cain

A new CNN poll shows Republican presidential nomination candidates Mitt Romney and Herman Cain in a dead heat to lead the GOP pack. Romney, Cain and the other GOP contenders will continue their series of debates October 18 in Las Vegas. Prior debates have focused on Republicans’ core issues: improving the economy, restructuring the tax code and undoing President Obama’s healthcare overhaul. But one burning issue about which the GOP candidates have kept mostly quiet is the implementation of education reforms at the state level.

In particular, do Romney and Cain see limits on collective bargaining, such as those recently passed in Ohio, as the pathway to instituting education reforms?

State level educational policy debates are not as sexy as healthcare and taxes – at least not yet. With Ohio voters facing a November referendum (Issue 2) on Governor Kasich’s restrictive new collective bargaining reform law, Republican contenders have the opportunity and responsibility to connect their education policy views to Ohio’s voters. Here’s why:

Both Mitt Romney and Herman Cain have similar stances on the federal government’s role in public education. Romney, who once called for the dismantling of the Education Department, now supports continuation of President George W. Bush’ No Child Left Behind Act. However, Romney also champions programs, including the expansion of tuition vouchers, to provide students with more robust school choice options. Romney also favors increasing use of charter schools to force traditional public schools to “compete” for students (and their accompanying tax dollars).

Herman Cain’s education policy doesn’t mirror Romney’s stance, but in effect it’s close. Cain emphasizes the need to return educational control to the state and local level, where Cain sees the best opportunities to institute changes satisfactory to each community. Like Romney, Cain supports funding for voucher programs and charter schools. Cain seems less interested in backing No Child Left Behind than Romney, favoring a gradual reduction in federal education aid to states.

Both Romney and Cain see teachers as part of public schools’ problems. Both candidates aim to reward “good” teachers and empower districts to cut “bad” teachers. However, neither frontrunner has delineated a detailed plan for how to do this. Romney, who has referred to union leaders as “fat cats,” and Cain are both businessmen who see the free market and application of business analytics to public education as the foundation for school improvement. Does that mean that both Romney and Cain stand with Governer Kasich of Ohio in supporting Ohio’s tough new collective bargaining limits? How will the Occupy Wall Street movement’s brewing animosity toward wealthy corporate types color the debate over whether business provides the best model for public education policymaking?

The answer to that question would put into stark relief the education policy stances of both Romney and Cain. On the one hand, the candidates’ support for Issue 2 would immediately alienate what appears to be a majority of Ohio voters. Given Ohio’s swing-state status, this seems politically unwise. On the other hand, both candidates seem to want to empower states to do exactly what Governor Kasich has done in Ohio.

I would ask the candidates: Do you stand with Governor Kasich in support of Ohio’s new collective bargaining law?

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