MAITLAND, FL - I live in central Florida in a suburban town known for its nationally-ranked public schools. As my wife and I did in moving here in 1988, the neighborhood's reputation for delivering a very good K-12 education is probably one of the chief factors in everyone's choice. The people who live in my neighborhood, mostly middle- to upper- middle income professionals with growing families, are rightly proud of their elementary, middle and high school. But when I walk my dog on these bucolic tree-lined streets these days, I see signs of disaster ahead for public education on a majority of the front lawns. That is, political signs indicating broad support here for the Republican ticket of Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan. These two confirmed enemies of public education promise to cut federal funding for public schools and, more ominously, would likely severely cut the U.S. Department of Education if elected. My neighbors, in other words, with their votes on Nov. 6, inexplicably threaten to crush their own children's future educational prospects along with the dreams of millions of young Americans today and for generations to come.
Romney and Ryan, of course, have a hand in this willful ignorance. Each of them has determinedly said as little as possible about education on the stump for good reason: They would cut federal education spending drastically, shifting costs onto already financially strapped states and families. When a student asked Romney earlier in the campaign season about his support for students struggling to pay off college tuition bills, Romney suggested that such students borrow money from their parents. His record as governor provides little promise as well. A program Romney championed in Massachusetts offering "free" tuition for the state's top 10 percent in student performance proved frustrating for many of the state's cash-strapped families because it didn't cover thousands of dollars in university student fees.
Ryan's own stated policy plans demonstrate an even more draconian intent. The Education Trust, a nonpartisan research firm, estimates the Ryan budget plan would cut almost $170 billion in student aid over 10 years, wiping out aid for less-than-halftime students, severely limiting qualifications rules, and converting the entire Pell Grant program into a vulnerable non-discretionary line item that could easily get axed by a Republican-dominated Congress, where Ryan would be the tie-breaking vote in the Senate. About 1 million students would be out of luck if Romney-Ryan prevails.
What would the impact be for my Florida neighbors? According to a study by American Progress Action, the Sunshine State would lose $361 million in federal funding for education and job training in 2013 alone. The result of a Romney-Ryan victory threatens an added burden on Florida property taxpayers such as my friends in Maitland -- that is, a choice of cutting benefits or raising taxes. And in the Republican-dominated statehouse, chances are the only option left open for discussion would be cuts in education funding. After all, this is a state where the government-run lottery promised to bring salvation to education, but since its inception in 1988 has managed to deliver under 40 percent of its revenues to the state's Educational Enhancement Trust Fund, covering only one-twentieth of Florida's annual education budget, according to a CBS News investigation that also reports Florida's per-pupil education spending went from 37th to 46th in the U.S.
Why has this turned out this way? Shamelessly, the legislature simply replaced taxes shifted from the education budget with lottery proceeds, resulting in a net loss for public schools statewide over the last two decades. (61% to 53% of state spending between 1986 and 2003, as reported by the St. Petersburg Times.
In stark contrast, President Barack Obama has expanded the Pell Grant program substantially, while also pursuing changes in elementary and middle school policy geared toward improving the public school system's effectiveness in delivering positive student outcomes. His policy plans include no cuts to higher education grants, in service to his belief that broad based public support for a college education correctly addresses corporate America's growing demand for better-trained work force as the economic recovery accelerates. Furthermore, the president substantially favors policies that address the rising cost of higher education -- which is the second largest pile of debt facing American families today. He does so by cutting in half the interest owed on federal student loans, limiting monthly payments by linking them to the students' post-graduation income, and by reducing the total lifetime outlay for such loans to $20,000. No one doubts that, like their promises to kill Obamacare, Romney-Ryan administration would eviscerate most if not all of those initiatives.
President Obama has also focused on pragmatic improvements allowing schools to deliver better service to children at the classroom level. According to the White House, "To date, President Obama’s Race to the Top initiative has dedicated over $4 billion to 19 states that have created robust plans that address the four key areas of K-12 education reform as described below. These states serve 22 million students and employ 1.5 million teachers in 42,000 schools, representing 45 percent of all K-12 students and 42 percent of all low-income students nationwide."
Like much of Mr. Obama's agenda since the 2010 election, his American Jobs Act proposals, with money to fund K-12 teaching positions lost to state budgetary shortfalls, have been ignored by Republicans in Congress who are intent on increasing already generous tax breaks for the very wealthy. "That's backwards. That's wrong," the president argued in a White House video found here.
So why all the Romney-Ryan signs in my school-proud Maitland neighborhood? I'm sure some of the folks here must be too busy to delve into these inconvenient facts. Perhaps my alternate hypothesis about this issue, though, is best summed up this way by Alec Bourne:
"It is possible to store the mind with a million facts and still be entirely uneducated."