A reporter asked me the other day what the presidential election means for K-12 education in Wisconsin. After some reflection I came to the conclusion, not a heck of a lot. Here is why:
Both Romney and Obama support high standards. President Obama defines high standards specifically as the common core standards that Wisconsin and dozens of other states have committed to, while Romney refers to high standards generically. Regardless, both advocate for something that most states have already agreed to.
Both also say they support parental choice. President Obama specifically supports charter schools, which Romney supports charters as well as vouchers. Romney even calls for the use of Title 1 funds earmarked for low-income children to be used to pay private school tuition. A federal voucher program has been proposed before, only to go nowhere. Such a fate likely awaits Romney’s idea given the overwhelming precedent of vouchers being a state-specific policy.
The candidates also sound the same when it comes to teachers. Though Romney downplays any connection between spending and outcomes and Obama argues for increased investment in teachers, both favor the concept of merit pay and say they want to reward good teachers while taking poor ones out of the classroom.
2. Wisconsin’s Approved No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Waiver
The approval of Wisconsin’s NCLB waiver drastically changed how the Education and Secondary Education Act, the federal government’s main influence over local education, will be implemented. The waiver specifically gave Wisconsin the power to implement its own accountability system to replace the failed NCLB accountability system. In other words, the federal government has passed much of its authority over Wisconsin’s K-12 education system over to the state.
It is possible that President Romney would pursue reauthorization of NCLB, thereby replacing the waiver, but a divided congress and NCLB’s hugely unpopular legacy makes such a move highly unlikely.
3. K-12 Education Remains a State and Local Issue
The bulk of funding for K-12 education comes from local and state government. As the expansion of the Milwaukee voucher program recently demonstrated, state and local opinions on education reforms are much more important than the opinion of the President. The passage of Act 10 (assuming it is eventually upheld) gives even more power to local school boards. The federal government may provide some finding and guidance, but the real power remains with those closest to the actually delivery of education.
It cannot be overstressed how much the unrealistic accountability provisions of NCLB influenced renewed skepticism of federal intervention in K-12 education. I think this is a positive, the diverse challenges facing Wisconsin school districts requires local approaches to education. While the education positions of the President mean something to the students using the Washington D.C. voucher program (which Romney supports and Obama opposes), they mean little for Wisconsin residents.