When Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney decried President Barack Obama as beholden to the nation’s teachers’ unions and unable to stand up for reform, he glossed over four years of a relationship that has been anything but cozy.
Obama has promoted initiatives that encourage districts to tie teacher evaluations to student performance and to expand the number of charter schools—actions the teacher unions have long been against, and which Romney himself promoted May 23 in a speech in Washington, D.C., outlining his education platform.
He also painted a bleak picture of a country where millions of kids are getting a “third-world education” and whose international standing has fallen far behind, an assertion frequently used by politicians and debated by academics, though the most recent tests show that U.S. student scores haven’t changed significantly and remain about average.
Here are some of Romney’s statements on education, and how they line up with the facts:
ROMNEY: “President Obama has been unable to stand up to union bosses—and unwilling to stand up for kids.”
THE FACTS: Several of the core tenets of the Obama administration’s signature education initiative, the Race to the Top competition, are policies first heralded by Republicans and are in opposition to the steadfast positions of teacher unions on topics like school choice and merit pay for teachers.
In order to qualify for a slice of the $4 billion allotted for the first two rounds of the grant competition, more than a dozen states changed laws to link teacher evaluations to how well students perform on tests. The Department of Education also rewarded states that had lifted caps on the number of charter schools and created performance pay plans to award teachers whose students have made the most progress.
When a board of trustees in Central Falls, R.I., voted to fire all the teachers at one of the state’s worst-performing schools in early 2010, Obama said the dismissals were an example of why accountability is needed at the nation’s most troubled schools, causing a furor among union advocates.
At its annual meeting last year, the National Education Association, the country’s largest teachers union, sent a message to Obama that it was “appalled” with Education Secretary Arne Duncan’s practice of focusing heavily on charter schools, supporting decisions to fire all staff and using high-stakes standardized test scores for teacher evaluations, along with 10 other policies mentioned.
“Obama has taken on teachers unions unlike any previous Democratic president,” said Tom Loveless of the Brookings Institution. “Because of that his support among union members, although it is still there, is rather tepid.”
ROMNEY: “The two major teachers unions take in $600 million each year. That’s more revenue than both of the political parties combined. In 2008, the National Education Association spent more money on campaigns than any other organization in the country.”
THE FACTS: Romney is correct that the NEA and the American Federation of Teachers pull in a lot of cash. The NEA took in more than $399 million in 2011, according to its annual report filed with the U.S. Department of Labor. A similar report from the AFT shows it took in more than $211 million last year.
But neither was at the top of the political spending list four years ago. In 2008, the NEA doled out $29 million to federal, state and local political efforts, federal data show. That ranked them a distant third in political spending by labor unions that year. The Service Employees International Union was first, with $67 million, and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees was second with $63 million.
ROMNEY: “More than 150 years ago, our nation pioneered public education. We’ve now fallen way behind.”
THE FACTS: Romney backed this assertion with figures from the most recent Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) results, which tests 15-year-olds around the world in math, reading and science. The United States ranked 14th in reading, 17th in science and 25th in math out of 34 developed countries. Those figures have been frequently cited by the Obama administration as well.
The test has only been administered since 2000, and shows U.S. students consistently hovering right around the average, at about the same achievement levels in math and reading as countries like Sweden, the United Kingdom and France. Overall, the U.S. scores are about the same as they were a decade ago, while some countries have improved.
“A better way for him to state it is to say American achievement is mediocre,” Loveless said. “It’s been mediocre for 50 years.”
Romney also asserted that millions of students are getting a “third-world education.” Looking again at the PISA test, students in schools where more than 75 percent of children were eligible for free and reduced-price lunch—a key indicator of poverty—scored an average of 446 points in reading. That’s at about the same level as Chile and Serbia. Meanwhile, those in the wealthiest U.S. schools score nearly as high as the top performer, the Shanghai region of China.
ROMNEY: Students participating in the Washington, D.C., Opportunity Scholarship program made gains and “after three months, students could already read at levels 19 months ahead of their public-school peers.”
THE FACTS: Romney’s description of the success of the school voucher program, which helps low-income children in the nation’s capital attend private elementary, middle and high schools, doesn’t match up with Department of Education evaluations.
A congressionally mandated review of the program released in 2009 found that after three years—not three months—only some students saw those gains. About one-fourth of children who used the scholarship read 19 months ahead of their peers after three years. In general, however, students’ gains were more modest. After three years in the program, students read at about four months ahead of their public-school peers.
A 2010 evaluation of the program found that on average, after four years, reading and math test scores of opportunity scholarship students were statistically similar to those not offered scholarships.
The program did, however, significantly improve students’ chances of graduating from high school.