The Obama campaign is going after Mitt Romney hard this week on education, warning parents that he wants to expand classroom sizes, a move they say would damage their childrens’ education. Muddying their message, however, is that the president’s own education secretary has taken a similar position.
Romney had a testy exchange with teachers on the issue while visiting a Philadelphia school this week, in which he insisted that his experience in Massachusetts and supporting research showed class size was less important than hiring effective teachers. It’s an argument he made previously in the GOP primary campaign as well as in his book, “No Apology.”
The Obama campaign responded with a statement from spokeswoman Lis Smith asking “what planet does he live on?” and describing how Romney “continued to insist — against all evidence — that larger class sizes are the answer to a good education.”
But Romney isn’t alone in his thinking. Education Secretary Arne Duncan has made exactly the same case for years, citing studies indicating that larger classes were not inherently detrimental. Last year, Duncan described class size as “a sacred cow and we need to take it on.” While he has said a “skyrocket” in class size would be harmful, he has publicly called on school districts to pay better-performing teachers higher salaries in exchange for taking on slightly bigger classes, rather than using that money make sure the teacher-to-student ratio doesn’t grow in every class. Via Education Week, this was his detailed take in 2010 at a forum hosted by the conservative American Enterprise Institute:
And he urged districts to consider “modest but smartly targeted increases in class size.” As a parent, Duncan said, he’d much rather have his kids in a class of 26 with a really excellent teacher, than in a class with 22 kids, lead [sic] by a mediocre teacher. And he said that in Asian countries that tend to do well on international benchmarks (like South Korea and Japan) average classes in secondary schools are in the mid 30’s, as opposed to the U.S. average of about 25.
During a question and answer period, one teacher questioned that rationale, saying that if she took on additional students, that’s asking her to do more for the same amount of money. Duncan said he’d like districts to consider reworking contracts so that effective teachers (particularly those who choose to work with more kids) can make a lot more money, say $80,000, or even $125,000.
On Friday, however, the Obama campaign held a press call with Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter just to bash Romney’s class-size position, which Nutter called a prime example of “backward and completely misguided ideas on education reform.”
Duncan has actually garnered some praise from Republicans for some of those positions. Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval (R), for example, recalled a meeting with Duncan in an interview with the Reno Gazette-Journal last year.
“One of the conversations we had was about class sizes,” Sandoval said. “And essentially, I agree with his position, which is if you have a quality teacher, you can handle a classroom size of 30. And that is what is important is having a quality teacher every day in every class.”
Asked about the apparent overlap, Smith defended the campaign’s contrast to TPM.
“Both experience and evidence show that smaller classes are better than bigger classes, especially for young children,” Smith said. “But class sizes aren’t the only thing that matters, and President Obama and Secretary Duncan are also working to raise academic expectations, invest in teacher quality, and turn around struggling schools. That’s very different from Mitt Romney, who thinks that smaller class sizes don’t matter or can even be harmful.”
There is still plenty of daylight between the two candidates on education. Romney recently unveiled a broad plan to use federal funds for a voucher program that parents could use to pay for private school education, for example, and it’s likely education funding would take a significant hit if budget cuts on the scale he’s proposed were enacted. But when it comes to classroom size, there seems to be some common ground — even if the Obama campaign isn’t willing to admit it.
Update, 1:53 PM: Romney campaign spokeswoman Andrea Saul responded to the latest Obama call, citing Duncan’s support for rethinking class size policy:
“If President Obama is as focused on class size as his campaign seems to be, his outdated view of education reform puts him at odds with leaders like Michelle Rhee, Bill Gates, and his own secretary of education - all of whom have said that improving teacher quality gives kids the best opportunity to learn,” Saul said. “Secretary Duncan even said that he ‘would choose a larger class size’ if it meant having a better teacher in the room. President Obama should be ashamed that his campaign is launching such cheap political attacks at the expense of a serious discussion about education policy. If he actually believes what his campaign is saying, he should fire his education secretary for supporting the same view on class size that Governor Romney is advancing.”
Benjy Sarlin is a reporter for Talking Points Memo and co-writes the campaign blog, TPM2012. He previously reported for The Daily Beast/Newsweek as their Washington Correspondent and covered local politics for the New York Sun.