Arizona Republican Debate: Fact Checking Romney, Santorum on No Child Left Behind

 
on February 23 2012 10:50 AM

Former president George W. Bush can't get much love from the party he used to lead, particularly when it comes to the education overhaul that was his signature domestic achievement.

Rick Santorum and Mitt Romney, the leading candidates to capture the Republican presidential nomination that voters once bestowed upon Bush, spent part of Wednesday night's debate distancing themselves from the No Child Left Behind law that they had both supported in the past.

The sweeping education reform bill passed with overwhelming bipartisan support in 2001 -- in the Senate, Democrats cast twice as many nay votes as Republicans -- but it has since fallen into disrepute, with lawmakers from both parties, state education offficials and the Obama administration viewing it as ineffective.

In addition to holding schools to what are generally regarded as unrealistically high standards, No Child Behind greatly expanded the federal government's role in education -- something that has become anathema in an election campaign where several candidates have called for eliminating the federal Department of Education.

Romney slammed Santorum for voting in favor of the bill, a decision Santorum said he now regrets because it was against the principles I believed in (Santorum also introduced an amendment that would have promoted the teaching of intelligent design and compelled teachers to question the theory of evolution).

When you're part of the team, sometimes you take one for the team, for the leader, and I made a mistake, Santorum said. You know, politics is a team sport, folks. And sometimes you've got to rally together and do something.

The basic principle of No Child Left Behind was to raise student achievement by mandating regular testing and then punish or reward schools based on test scores. Santorum seemed to embrace that component but criticized the increased funding that accompanied it.

I thought testing was -- and finding out how bad the problem was wasn't a bad idea, Santorum said. What was a bad idea was all the money that was put out there, and that, in fact, was a huge problem.

In that sense, Romney seemed to take a fairly similar position to Santorum. He touted having supported legislation that mandated that Massachusetts students pass exams in English and math in order to graduate from high school, saying it was one of the principles that drove our schools to be pretty successful.

That kind of reliance on a vigorous testing regime was a cornerstone of No Child Left Behind, which required all states receiving federal funding to test students in reading and math annually in third through eighth grade and at least once during high school. Romney seemed to recognize that in 2007, when he pronounced himself very proud of his support for Bush's law.

I supported No Child Left Behind, Romney said during a May 2007 debate. I still do. I know there are a lot in my party that don't like it, but I like testing in our schools. I think it allows us to get better schools, better teachers; allows us to let our kids have the kind of hope that they ought to have.

Newt Gingrich joined Santorum and Romney in calling for states to be given more power in determining education policy. No Child Left Behind allowed states to formulate their own standardized tests. While some critics said the flexibility allowed states to lower the bar in the interest of achieving higher test scores, Bush defended preserving local autonomy.

The federal government will not micromanage how schools are run, Bush said in announcing No Child Left Behind. We believe strongly -- we believe strongly the best path to education reform is to trust the local people.  And so the new role of the federal government is to set high standards, provide resources, hold people accountable, and liberate school districts to meet the standards.

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