WASHINGTON (Reuters) - On the campaign trail during the past week, President Barack Obama talked a lot about education.
Making a bid for young voters and their parents, Obama accused Republican rival Mitt Romney of planning to slash aid to college students. Romney hit back by noting that Obama, a Democrat, has not been able to rein in the soaring cost of tuition.
But the differences between the two candidates on education policy extend far deeper than a war of sound bites over college costs. In an echo of their broader philosophical divide, Romney and Obama split sharply over what role the private sector should play in the U.S. education system.
“There are very, very meaningful differences in philosophy,” said Phillip Handy, a businessman who was chairman of the Florida Board of Education for six years and now advises Romney on the subject.
Romney seeks to encourage - with federal subsidies, when necessary - robust participation from the private sector in teaching American kids and training workers. He would use public dollars to enroll more children in private schools; keep federal aid flowing to private, for-profit colleges; and pay private banks to take over part of the federal student loan program.
Obama, by contrast, has sought to expand government’s role in education.
He has directed billions of dollars in federal funds to states that adopted his vision of a revamped kindergarten through 12th grade curriculum, with more emphasis on standardized testing. He has secured billions more in public funding to help states avert teacher layoffs.
And in higher education, Obama has expanded federal student aid and cracked down on for-profit colleges that he says leave students with too much debt and too few job prospects.
Here is a look at a few key disputes over education policy:
In K-12 education, Obama has gone much further than his allies in the teachers unions would like in embracing charter schools, which are publicly funded but privately managed, in some cases by for-profit companies.
Obama has pushed states to allow more charter schools to open and has directed federal funds to some of the most successful, including a five-year, $50 million grant to the KIPP network of charter schools.
But Romney, the presumptive Republican nominee, would go further.
He has called for redirecting up to $25 billion in federal aid to help schools serve disabled and impoverished children.
Under his plan, up to 12 million needy students nationwide could use the funds to pay tuition at private or religious schools or to enroll in charter schools that might not otherwise have the resources to serve them. Romney would press states to lift all caps restricting the number of charter and online schools. And he would expand federal funding for charter management companies, with the aim of helping the best grow rapidly.
Romney also has cited as a model the aggressive education overhaul in Louisiana. Under Republican Governor Bobby Jindal, the state has laid out a plan to shift tax dollars from public schools to private-sector entrepreneurs and industry trade groups that design courses for K-12 students.
Romney argues that the public school system is broken and in desperate need of new ideas and new energy from the private sector. He is clear about whom he believes is to blame: A campaign policy paper calls public education “an antiquated system controlled to a disturbing degree by the unions representing teachers.”
Teachers unions, predictably, have rallied to the Democratic president. They dislike some of his policies, such as his push to rate teachers largely by their students’ progress on standardized tests. Still, they are expected to spend millions supporting his campaign.
“Do we believe that this administration has put too much of a focus on testing and competition? Yes,” Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, told a recent union convention.
But Weingarten also credited the president’s stimulus bill with saving the jobs of 300,000 school employees across the nation. More recently, Obama requested - but failed to get - $55 billion from Congress to prevent some 320,000 teacher layoffs and repair crumbling schools.
In higher education, the candidates are sharply divided over the value of private, for-profit colleges that offer career training and degree programs in everything from dental hygiene to wind turbine repair to video game art.
Romney has touted for-profit colleges as vital players in higher education. Their very presence, he argues, spurs competition, keeps costs down and expands access to higher education for millions of young adults and mid-career workers looking to shift to a new field.
Obama, however, has accused the industry of promising too much and delivering too little. Too often, he says, recruiters enroll students who do not have a realistic chance of getting a degree or landing a job in their chosen field - and who gain little from the programs except mountains of debt.
In a speech to veterans this spring, Obama accused private, for-profit colleges of trying to “hoodwink” and “swindle” military families eligible for financial aid under the G.I. Bill.
The administration has sought to crack down on abuses by pulling federal aid from colleges that fail to produce enough graduates who find “gainful employment.” A federal judge last month invalidated part of that regulation; the administration is still considering its response.
Romney has said he would repeal the regulation altogether.
Romney advisers say he also would push for repeal of a federal law that aims to ensure that for-profit colleges do not get all their revenue from federal student loans, but attract at least some students willing to pay the tuition out of pocket.
Calling for-profit colleges a good deal for students, Romney has campaigned several times on their campuses. Industry leaders have contributed heavily to his campaign. Bill Heavener, the CEO of Full Sail University, a for-profit college in Florida, is a top Romney fundraiser and donor.
The industry’s trepidation about Obama comes through in a recent poll of influential players in the education world conducted by Whiteboard Advisors, a consulting firm.
Asked how concerned for-profit colleges should be about a second Obama term, 38 percent expressed strong concern - and another 21 percent checked the box labeled “Panic!”
Romney’s selection of Ryan as his running mate has added a wrinkle to the debate over education policy.
The sweeping budget plan that Ryan has laid out - and that Romney has endorsed in principle - would make deep cuts in discretionary domestic spending, including education.
Ryan has not spelled out exactly how his budget axe would fall, but he has said he would cut the number of students eligible for Pell Grants, which help pay college tuition.
In a new ad, Obama accuses the Republican ticket of planning to cut college aid for millions. Another ad, produced by the Democratic National Committee, ridicules Romney for telling young voters that his best advice on affording college is to “shop around” for a good deal and borrow from their parents if necessary.
Romney and Ryan say that the easy availability of federal grants and loans drives up the cost of college for everyone - and has turned into a de facto entitlement. “America needs a new normal,” Romney declares in his education policy paper.
Political pundits say they expect education policy disputes to pop up before the November 6 election because the topic encapsulates the candidates’ divergent views on the role of government.
As Fredrick Hess, a political scientist at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, put it: “Education may well end up being used as Exhibit A.”
Editing by David Lindsey and Vicki Allen