Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney staked out a softer position than usual last night on the role of the federal government in American life. Regulation? It’s “essential.” The role of government in education? It can be "very important.” As a result, Romney and President Obama agreed more than they disagreed on how to improve students’ mastery of science and math and train a new generation of high tech workers.

On the stump, Obama has made few references to his administration’s signature education initiative, Race to the Top, but he named it three times last night. Under Race to the Top, the White House has used federal grants to encourage states to adopt tougher reading, writing and math standards, and to encourage them to tie teacher evaluations to students' test scores. (Read more here about how the Common Core standards will change the way students in Kindergarten through 12th grade learn math). “What we've said is to states, we'll give you more money if you initiate reforms. And as a consequence, you had 46 states around the country who have made a real difference,” he said last night, referred to the 46 states who have adopted the Common Core.

In the past, Romney’s advisors have criticized Race to the Top's role in promoting the Common Core, saying the federal government was playing too big a role in decisions that are better left to states. But last night Romney went on the record praising Race to the Top. “The primary responsibility for education is, of course, at the state and local level,” he said. “But the federal government also can play a very important role. And I agree with Secretary [of Education] Arne Duncan -- some ideas he's put forward on Race to the Top, not all of them, but some of them I agree with and congratulate him for pursuing that. The federal government can get local and state schools to do a better job.”

The quote surprised Kathleen Porter-Magee, a Bernard Lee Schwartz Policy Fellow at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a conservative-leaning education policy think thank."Obviously, a lot of conservatives are really worried about federal overreach in forcing states to adopt the Common Core," she says. "So, I found it interesting how much praise Romney gave Obama for his Race to the Top program. I think it shows, as polarized as the debate over education reform has become, there are a lot of areas where both sides agree."

Even with the praise, Romney’s answer leaves open the question of how much support he, as president, would give to states as they implement the common core standards by the 2014 deadline. Facing a budget crunch, school districts are scrambling for the resources to buy new curricula and prepare teachers for the changes. And neither he nor Obama addressed the forthcoming Next Generation Science Standards, which aim to do for K to 12 science, technology and engineering education what the Common Core did for math and language arts. States will have to decide next year whether or not to adopt them. What role, if any, will the federal government play in encouraging states to sign on?

Another potential area of agreement was on the role businesses should play in helping community colleges train workers for high tech jobs. In his 2012 budget, Obama requested $8 billion for a Community College to Career Fund to train 2 million workers in fields such as healthcare and advanced manufacturing. The initiative is aimed at addressing the shortage of workers in high-paying science and technology fields. Across the country, there are nearly twice as many job openings in these fields as qualified workers looking to fill them. “When it comes to community colleges, we are seeing great work done out there all over the country because we have the opportunity to train people for jobs that exist right now,” said Obama. “And one of the things I suspect Governor Romney and I probably agree on is getting businesses to work with community colleges so that they're setting up their training programs ...and people who are going through them know that there's a job waiting for them if they complete it. That makes a big difference, but that requires some federal support.”

Obama also mentioned his goal of training 100,000 new math and science teachers within the next decade to address a critical shortage of teachers with bachelor’s degrees in those subjects. The 100,000 figure first came up in a September, 2010 report to the president by his Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST), which estimated the training would cost $100 to $150 million per year. While Obama didn't specify where the money for that program would come from, a group of private companies and philanthropic organizations known as 100Kin10 has embraced the cause.

IMAGES: Left, official White House photo by Pete Souza. Right, photo by Terence Burlij/PBS NewsHour via flickr.

More to Explore:

Common Core State Standards Dividing the GOP,” from Education Week.

Why Math Teachers Feel Poorly Prepared,” from Scientific American.