President Barack Obama said his Republican rival for the presidency, Mitt Romney, favors cutting the Education Department’s budget by up to 20 percent, while Romney insisted that was false. The moment was one of many during their first debate in which the two candidates disagreed sharply over policy decisions with important implications for schools.
Seeking to draw a distinction between himself and Romney, Obama recalled a teacher he met in Las Vegas who had students sitting on the floor and using 10-year-old textbooks. He suggested that Romney’s plans to cut taxes by 20 percent across the board while also cutting federal spending don’t add up—and they won’t allow the nation to make important new investments in research and education.
Romney countered by arguing that Obama has directed billions of dollars in federal funding to what he described as failed new energy research—a figure that could have paid for 2 million more teachers, Romney noted.
The two candidates faced off Oct. 3 before a crowd of fewer than 1,000 people at the University of Denver. But their policy-heavy debate really was aimed at the tens of millions of television viewers who tuned in, particularly those who haven’t committed their support for either candidate.
On education, Romney touted his record as governor of Massachusetts, which he repeatedly said has the top-ranked schools in the country.
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It’s true that Massachusetts schools are among the top-ranked schools in the nation, according to results on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (commonly referred to as the Nation’s Report Card). But Massachusetts also ranks eighth in the nation in terms of per-pupil spending on education, according to a U.S. Census Bureau report released earlier this year.
At one point in the debate, when Obama claimed that Romney wants to cut up to 20 percent of the federal budget for education, Romney responded: “Mr. President, you’re entitled to your own airplane and your own house, but not your own facts.”
Obama was basing his claim on the budget proposal put forth by Romney’s running mate, Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan. The House budget that Ryan authored and that Romney said he mostly supports includes large cuts to federal programs—but the problem is that it doesn’t specify how these cuts would be distributed, leaving the Romney camp open to speculation about how the cuts would affect education.
A document issued by the Obama administration claims that if the cuts were distributed evenly across all programs—something that neither Romney nor Ryan has ever advocated—they would result in 38,000 fewer teachers and aides for poor children, as well as 27,000 fewer special-education teachers and support staff. What’s more, 200,000 children would be dropped from Head Start and other early education programs, the analysis says.
During the debate, Romney insisted, “I’m not going to cut education funding. I don’t have a plan to cut education funding.”
But in the past, Romney has said he would do just that, a Washington Post fact-checker wrote.
“In a speech to donors in Florida in the spring overheard by reporters, Mr. Romney said he would either merge the federal Education Department with another agency ‘or perhaps make it a heck of a lot smaller,’” the Post reported.
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One item for which Romney did admit he would cut federal funding is public television.
Romney told debate moderator Jim Lehrer, a veteran of the Public Broadcasting Service, that he would stop the federal subsidy to PBS—even though “I love Big Bird.” PBS television programming plays a large role in helping to make sure children enter school ready to learn, its advocates say.
As Romney made his remark about PBS, commenters on Twitter leaped to the defense of their favorite “Sesame Street” characters. Big Bird was a major Twitter trend throughout the night, according to the micro-blogging site, while Oscar the Grouch and Bert and Ernie also were featured.
A spoof Twitter account, @firedbigbird, quickly won thousands of followers, while other Twitter users shared a doctored photo showing the character posing with a cardboard sign pleading for work.