Phil Handy

An education advisor to Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign said last night that a Romney administration would not use federal funds to encourage states to adopt higher standards in math and science.

President Barack Obama’s Race to the Top Program has offered grants to states that adopt certain reforms, including the Common Core State Standards in math and language arts. “The Common Core standards are a very good idea, but they should be opted in by governors and enacted by the states, and both should ultimately be sponsored by the states,” said Phil Handy, higher education co-chair of Romney’s Education Policy Advisory Group. “Economic incentives are not the purview of the federal government.”

Handy, wearing bright orange socks that punctuated his dark suit, spoke at a debate hosted by Teacher’s College, Columbia University and Education Week last night, where he was joined by Jon Schnur, an education advisor to President Barack Obama and co-founder of America Achieves. Susan Fuhrman, president of Teacher’s College, moderated the discussion.

Jon Schnur

Schnur countered that Obama agrees that states should determine their own standards but that the federal government should “provide a supportive role.” "Standards alone don't drive [change]," he said. "You also need investment."

The two advisors sparred for 90 minutes over the federal government’s role in education. (Only about 10 percent of K-12 education dollars come from Washington; states cover most of the rest). In the last two years, forty-five states and the District of Columbia have adopted new Common Core standards, which many hope will lead to revamped curricula that enhance children’s critical thinking abilities and deepen their understanding of math. But standards are just the first step, and schools are now scrambling for the money to purchase new instructional materials that are in line with the standards, to train their teachers accordingly, and to develop new state tests that reflect the new expectations. Race to the Top grants have provided some of this funding.

While the Common Core process is well underway, a new phase of the uniform standards movement is just getting off the ground: the Next Generation Science Standards, which are based on recommendations from scientists at the National Academies. Proponents of the new science standards, which states may begin adopting as early as next spring, say they are an important first step to improving scientific literacy among American students. Though the new science standards did not come up at the debate, the next president will determine the role of the federal government in helping states implement them.

Handy said Romney believes the government is responsible for: 1) providing transparency in the form of school data that would help parents make informed decisions about where to send their kids 2) providing funding for underprivileged and special needs kids under Title I and other programs 3) offering some of that funding in the form of vouchers that would allow parents to choose scho0ls outside their zone. "No child should be obligated to go to a certain school because they are born in a certain zip code," he said. Low performing schools "need some disruption in the system," he said, "and we believe that choice is part of that disruption."

Schnur responded that "If you focus only on transparency and choice and walk away from funding, I think choices aren’t meaningful."