Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney is often criticized for telling people what they want to hear, but that wasn't necessarily the case at a town hall meeting when a 9-year-old girl asked him about his stands on education.
"I'm going to make your school harder," Romney replied, "because I want you to have the best education in the world."
When he was governor of Massachusetts, Romney sustained that state's successful education reforms, holding schools accountable for boosting student learning. Now he stands out in the presidential field for supporting accountability at the federal level and proposing helpful ways to improve the No Child Left Behind law.
The law, President Bush's signature education reform, forced states to set learning standards and measure school performance, particularly in narrowing learning gaps between white and black students. The widely criticized law has obvious flaws, but for now it is the only mechanism for pressuring reluctant schools to ensure that all children get a decent education.
Romney rightly regards closing the achievement gap in schools as "the civil rights issue of our time." He would improve No Child by focusing more attention on individual student progress and by giving more flexibility to states that meet or exceed testing requirements.
One of Romney's leading rivals for the GOP nomination, former governor Mike Huckabee of Arkansas, also warrants praise for his education record, including endorsements of school accountability. But Huckabee's emphasis on leaving states alone to practice school reform is worrisome. That's the biggest weakness in No Child, because it encourages states to try to game the system by setting low standards.
Senators naturally have less involvement in education than state and local officials, but even by congressional standards, John McCain doesn't have much to say about the subject. Of 11 issues listed on McCain's campaign
McCain's campaign website, education isn't among them.
Former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani, meanwhile, focuses his education proposals on vouchers -- payments to help parents send their children to private schools. Vouchers are popular with conservatives and look good on paper, but in the real world they often fall short because of a lack of good neighborhood schools at which they can be used.
On the Democratic side of the presidential contest, the candidates seem mainly interested in trying to curry favor with teachers' unions that dislike the No Child law's rigidity and are a powerful force in the party's primaries. The candidates' strategy seems to be to leave the impression they'd dismantle No Child, without actually committing to do so.
In a campaign ad, Hillary Clinton says, "We need to end the unfunded mandate known as No Child Left Behind, which has been so difficult for so many." And at a National Education Association (NEA) meeting last summer, she told the cheering delegates, "Our children are getting good at filling in those little bubbles (on tests). But how much creativity is being left behind?"
So does that mean Clinton wants to get rid of No Child? Not exactly. Aides say Clinton seeks to reform the law to provide more resources and more sophisticated testing that tracks every student through the grades.
John Edwards similarly denounced "cheap standardized tests" at the NEA gathering and waved a red T-shirt that read, "A child is more than a test score." Edwards supports improving those tests, but he also wants to give students more ways to prove they are learning, such as essays, science projects and oral exams.
While there is certainly room for improvement in the tests, allowing alternatives such as science-project grades would open potentially gaping loopholes. And the standardized tests Clinton and Edwards deride are, for now, the sole tool for holding governors, mayors and superintendents responsible for educating poor, minority children.
Barack Obama suffers some of the same squishiness on accountability as Clinton and Edwards. Oddly, he criticizes others for not joining him in the Senate to neuter the No Child law unless it is "fully funded." Should a financing spat really be used as an excuse to yank a law that has proved to be a life raft for thousands of low-income children trapped in faltering schools?
Out on the campaign trail, Romney hasn't highlighted his support for school accountability, perhaps because many conservatives dislike federal meddling in local education. As he retools his message after second-place finishes in Iowa and New Hampshire, Romney would do well to talk more about his record on education. It would cast him in a favorable light, and might even prod the other candidates to speak with more candor about an issue vital to that 9-year-old girl's ability to compete in today's global economy.