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Romney, Obama Vie for Who Can Hurt Education the Worst

Neither candidate is willing to address the real issue plaguing education policy: inequality.

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In [last] week's round in the nation's presidential contest, education got tossed into the ring and slapped around by the opposing candidates and their spokespeople. Who won the round is anyone's guess, but poor education got mauled in the process and tossed into the spit bucket.

The bout started with presumed challenger Mitt Romney unveiling his education agenda at the Latino Coalition's Annual Economic Summit in Washington. In his presentation, Romney declared American public schools to be in "crisis," and he criticized President Obama for being "unwilling to stand up for kids" and unable to "be the voice of disadvantaged public school kids."

The jabs continued later the same day with Romney, speaking at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, declaring that the Obama administration's policies had resulted in "millions of kids…getting a third world education" and accusing the president of not being "a champion of real education reform in America" like he, Romney, would be. He cast his proposals for education as a commitment to "the civil rights issue of our time."

The Obama campaign countered these criticisms with their own about Romney's record as governor of Massachusetts where he cut literacy programs, caused teacher layoffs, and "vetoed a bill that would have limited class size in early-grades and one that would have created universal prekindergarten."

But don't be mistaken that the sparring campaigns were intent only on laying a glove on each other, because caught between the opposing campaigns, taking the brunt of the beating, were educators themselves and the reputation of America's public schools.

At the outset of their arguments, both campaigns begin with a narrative that public education in America is in "crisis," our schools are "failing," and radical "reform" is the imperative of the day. And as for that full-throated devotion to the "civil rights issue of our time," well, we've certainly heard that before.

Where the campaigns tried to score on each other was in the sacred realm of DC policy, where terms like "choice, accountability, and reform" are inflated with mythic technocratic significance by the Very Serious People. And left totally out of the melee was whether either candidate can come close to telling the truth.

Take that "education crisis" for instance.

A week before the political fisticuffs broke out, Richard Rothstein, a research associate at the Economic Policy Institute, engaged in some truth-telling about education in a commencement speech at the Loyola University Chicago School of Education. A transcript of the speech, appearing at Valerie Strauss' blog at The Washington Post, lays out some of the "real facts" that are rarely spoken by candidates for political office or the courtiers and stenographers who follow them.

According to Rothstein, the case that "politicians of both parties, leading educators, and philanthropists like Bill Gates" make about America's "failing" schools is based on "imaginary facts."

"You may be surprised to learn," he explains, "that African-American elementary school student achievement… has been improving so spectacularly that in math, the average black student now performs better than about 90% of all black students performed less than a generation ago. What’s more, black elementary school math performance is now better than white performance was in the previous generation."

What? America's public school are succeeding? How can that be?

Wait, it gets worse: "The gains have been almost as great for middle-schoolers in math, and for elementary school students in reading," Rothstein continues. "Policymakers, pundits, and politicians ignore these gains; they conclude that you, educators, have been incompetent because the test score gap hasn’t much narrowed. But the reason it hasn’t narrowed is that your profession has done too good a job — you’ve improved white children’s performance as well, so the score gap persists, but at a higher level for all."

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