Fact check: Romney, Obama face off over education spending

Mitt Romney defended his record on education by noting, at least twice, that Massachusetts, where he served as governor, is “No. 1 in the nation.”

Student achievement is comparatively high in Massachusetts based on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a test given to a sample of students nationwide. Massachusetts also has been praised for its rigorous academic standards. The state has the advantage of higher funding than many states and, compared with California, for example, has a less challenging student population, in terms of family income, parent education levels and native English speakers.

“Romney boasts of Massachusetts as No. 1 in education, but that happened before he became governor,” said education historian Diane Ravitch in an email. She is critical of both candidates on education but more critical of Romney. “In fact, Massachusetts became No. 1 by doing things that Romney now opposes, like spending more on education, more on early childhood education.”

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Nonetheless, Massachusetts had a strong reputation before, during and after Romney’s term as governor.

The two candidates also clashed on the level of federal education funding.

“Budgets matter because budgets reflect choices,” Obama said. He noted that Romney has expressed support for the budget plan of his running mate, Wisconsin Rep. Paul D. Ryan. The White House has estimated that the Ryan budget would result in a 19% cut to federal education funding over the next two years. Obama used the round figure of 20% in the debate.

Romney took issue with this contention, saying that he didn’t “have any plan to cut education funding.” This statement could be true, but the candidates’ established positions suggest strongly that Obama is likely to spend more at the federal level, for better or worse.

Romney also mentioned two new potential federal initiatives.

The first would be providing federal aid in the form of vouchers that students could use either to enroll in a public school or pay for a portion of the tuition at a private school. Obama did not address the point, although he has come out strongly against vouchers. Obama has allowed a voucher trial program to continue in the Washington, D.C., public schools as part of a legislative compromise.

Romney also proposed giving schools letter grades, an approach that has been tried in New York City, among other places. In New York, the letter-grade system has yielded inconsistent, hard-to-interpret results so far, despite the seeming simplicity of the concept.

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