Grading the GOP Candidates on Education

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Republican presidential candidates Michele Bachmann, Mitt Romney and Rick Perry before the start of the debate at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, September 7, 2011.

Given how preoccupied everyone is with the economy, education is even less of an issue in this presidential campaign than usual. Most of the Republican candidates do not even include education positions on their websites. And the two GOP heavyweights who have garnered the best reviews from education reformers on both sides of the aisle are not even in the race: former Florida Governor Jeb Bush is sitting the campaign out, and former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty dropped out after finishing a disappointing third in the Iowa straw poll. But as President Obama gets ready to put the debate about how to reform No Child Left Behind on the front burner (he's planning a big speech at the White House for this Friday), the GOP candidates can't avoid education forever. As some start to drop hints about what their education plans might look like, here's a handicapper's guide to the leading contenders and their views — and record — on education.

Texas Governor Rick Perry. Perry got an unintentional boost on education when Secretary of Education Arne Duncan foolishly attacked him last month over the quality of schools in the Lone Star state. Texas schools are not as bad as Duncan claimed. But reforms under Democratic and Republican governors preceding Perry arguably deserve more of the credit than Perry does. He's also presided over a state with embarrassing curricular debates and revisionist history, and Perry himself has made some questionable statements about teaching creationism in public schools. In Perry's favor, he has resisted efforts to weaken academic standards in Texas schools and has tried to hold higher education in Texas more accountable while making colleges and universities more productive. Still, those pieces don't add up to an agenda yet, and Perry's get-Washington-out-of-education rhetoric is hard to take seriously without one. Grade: C.

Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney. Mitt Romney version 1.0 was a pragmatic moderate on education while he was in the statehouse. He supported better academic standards, accountability, and charter schools. During the 2008 campaign, Romney defended No Child Left Behind, and he clearly understands the need to improve education and training as part of America's competitiveness strategy. But in a tough primary race with an electorate energized by the Tea Party, we're getting Romney version 4.0 or 5.0, who has been trying to distance himself from anything that sounds like a national program. So while he led a state that is in many ways a national model on education policy, he's not going to let school reform become another Romney-care style political liability. Whether he can tack back to the center after the primary is the unanswered question. Grade: Incomplete.

Former Utah Governor and U.S. Ambassador to China Jon Huntsman. The former governor and Obama Administration appointee has become the darling of moderates from both parties. He believes in evolution! He thinks climate change is a problem! He's just like us! Yet some of his positions as governor of Utah suggest a less enlightened viewpoint when it comes to schools. Most notably, Huntsman tussled with Bush Administration Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings about whether Utah should be allowed to use its own school accountability system that would not disaggregate results by race and ethnicity — even though Utah has an achievement gap problem. At the same time, however, he raised teacher salaries in the state and enacted an extended kindergarten program over the objections of conservatives. A Republican the teachers' unions could love? Not so fast. He passed a statewide private-school voucher plan. Grade: B-.

Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachmann. Bachmann arguably has more actual education policy experience than anyone else in the Republican race — and that's the problem. She got into politics to fight against education policies that she didn't favor, including the push for statewide academic standards. She made a name for herself deriding programs like the federal School-to-Work initiative as Soviet-style collectivist planning. Later, she helped launch a charter school that stumbled and, according to multiple accounts including Ryan Lizza's profile of her in The New Yorker, started achieving better results only after she had left its board. Not surprisingly, Bachmann on the campaign trail has been talking up eliminating the Department of Education and undoing Obama's education policies while offering only rhetoric as an alternative. Grade: F.

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich. In 2009 and 2010 Gingrich was full of good things to say about President Obama's education plans. He even appeared on NBC's Meet the Press alongside Arne Duncan to tout education reform and told Politico's Mike Allen that the Secretary was "a serious innovator." But these days, other than telling debate audiences that he agrees with President Obama on the need for more charter schools, Gingrich is largely quiet about education. That's too bad. The former Speaker's penchant for big provocative ideas is exactly what the Republican primary could use on education, but so far Gingrich seems content to play it safe instead. Count that as another intellectual casualty of a GOP primary careening to the right. Grade C-.

Texas Congressman Ron Paul. If you genuinely want the federal government out of education, Ron Paul is your guy. Give the Texas libertarian credit for a consistent stance even when it's politically unpopular. Many candidates talk a good game about state and local control, but when push comes to shove, they're not going to eliminate the federal government's more than $60 billion investment in public schools, financial aid for college or many of the other policies that families with children really care about. Paul would nix them all. It doesn't make for a very interesting education policy — and is one that would arguably move the country backwards in terms of school quality and equity — but you can't accuse Paul of playing politics with education. Grade: Gentleman's C, just because consistency and principle are so rare in politics these days.

Andrew J. Rotherham, who writes the blog Eduwonk, is a co-founder and partner at Bellwether Education, a nonprofit working to improve educational outcomes for low-income students. School of Thought, his education column for, appears every Thursday.