Though education has played second fiddle so far to other domestic issues in the race for the Republican presidential nomination, the narrowing field includes GOP candidates with compatible views on scaling back the federal role in K-12, but big contrasts in policy specifics and experience.
President Barack Obama, meanwhile, is expected to put a strong emphasis on his own K-12 agenda and achievements--including such signature programs as the Race to the Top and a waiver plan for unpopular provisions of the No Child Left Behind Act--as his re-election effort gains steam.
A look at the education records of the GOP candidates illustrates some common themes, along with differences in style and policy nuance:
--Former Gov. Mitt Romney of Massachusetts, who won the Jan. 3 Iowa caucuses by just eight votes, has an extensive record on education from his time as a state chief executive, and has offered specifics on a number of topics. He's championed standardized testing and supported the NCLB law's emphasis on accountability. But he's also favored a more robust role for the states in K-12 policy.
--Former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, the close runner-up to Mr. Romney in Iowa, voted for the NCLB law while in the Senate. He has championed special education issues and autism research. He's also said a top-down education system doesn't serve parents well, and is known as staunch conservative on social issues. During the debate over the creation of NCLB, he pushed an amendment that critics said promoted an "anti-evolution" agenda in the classroom.
--U.S. Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, who placed third in Iowa, has long said the federal government has no place in schools, and favors abolishing the U.S. Department of Education, and phasing out federal student loans.
--Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, who has teamed up with U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and the Rev. Al Sharpton to call for rigorous school accountability, has said he'd like to shrink the U.S. Department of Education and expand school choice options.
--Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who once led the candidate pack, has clashed with President Obama in a far-from-theoretical way on K-12 policy: His state was one of a handful to opt out of the Race to the Top competition.
--Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman signed a bill requiring that his state's accountability system trump the NCLB law. With millions in Title I money at stake, the state backed down.
The common emphasis on a diminished federal role in K-12 poses a challenge for the GOP presidential contenders hoping to push their own sweeping education proposals and stand out on the issue, said Patrick McGuinn, an associate professor of political science and education at Drew University, in Madison, N.J. "It's a bit of pickle for Republicans," he said.
Mr. Romney, who went into this week's New Hampshire primary with strong prospects, has an extensive record on education from his time as Massachusetts governor. He also offers specifics on a number of K-12 issues in his 2010 book No Apology: The Case for American Greatness.
Generally, Mr. Romney portrays himself as supporting the public schools' role in preparing students for a changing workforce, and names education as a civil right. He expresses his strong preference for using standardized tests to measure student achievement, and credits the NCLB law for helping to advance accountability.
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