Obama and Christie Share Common Ground on Education

John Mooney | August 28, 2012 | Education
It's not likely to come up in the governor's keynote speech, but the two agree more often than not on education issues

Although it’s surely not the theme he’ll sound tonight in his keynote address to the Republican National Convention, Gov. Chris Christie has often agreed with President Obama on one big issue: education.

Christie has said that he and the president often see eye to eye on charter schools, teacher evaluation, and tenure reform — among other topics. Last year, the governor even hosted Obama’s education secretary, Arne Duncan, at Drumthwacket to help promote his school reform agenda.

“I have a lot of agreement with the president and Arne Duncan on these education issues, and I’ve said that publicly many times,” Christie said in March at a televised forum on education.

He called Duncan an “enormous breath of fresh air in the education system,” and said Obama deserves the credit for appointing him.

The accord also reflects how much Obama has moved to the center on education issues. The president has endorsed testing and accountability measures that have riled teachers unions and other Democratic-leaning interest groups.

Observers say it speaks to how mainstream broad-based education reform has become, although it’s not likely to be a defining issue in the presidential election, where the economy and the broader role of government dominate.

“Imagine if Chris Christie endorsed Obama’s healthcare plan,” said Andrew Rotherham, a well-known education blogger and policy consultant out of Washington, D.C. “Would he have been picked for the keynote? Probably not.”

Rotherham added that education is “just not that partisan any more. There is so much overlap now.”

Still, key differences separate the two presidential candidates’ education agendas, ones that they will likely play up in the months ahead.

And while Christie has said little publicly about Romney’s education platform, the Republican nominee’s positions will surely gain the governor’s strident endorsement.

For instance, Romney has supported expanding school choice, including providing federal money through vouchers for low-income students to attend private or parochial schools, something Obama vehemently opposes.

Christie also supports school vouchers and has called passage of a bill to create tax credits for them top priority, even as it has continued to languish in the Statehouse.

But education has hardly been a polarizing issue in this fall’s race, which means that Republican governors like Christie can straddle both sides.

When voters were asked in a recent national poll which candidate would be better for public education, there was little agreement. Overall, the president came out slightly ahead among all participants. in the Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup Poll. When it came to the critical independent voters, however, Romney squeaked ahead.

And there remain deep divides on some core issues, according to the poll, such as whether teachers should be judged on how well their students perform on tests.

Yet Romney’s education track record isn’t all that different from Obama’s. As the governor of Massachusetts, he supported setting a standards-and-testing path that is a model often cited by Obama and Duncan — and one that Christie has dutifully followed in New Jersey as well.

“This has put Romney in a bit of a bind,” said Patrick McGuinn, an associate professor of political science at Drew University who closely follows federal education policy. “There is actually not that big a space between his record and what Obama has done.”

And McGuinn said Obama is sure to exploit that, with Christie far from the only Republican governor who has embraced Obama’s education policies through the Race to the Top grants and most recently state waivers from the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

“I totally expect to see the Obama campaign run videoclips of all those Republican governors endorsing the president on education,” McGuinn said. “He knows that education is something that has always played well with the center and swing voters.”

And so does Christie, in a state where being a Republican means working with the Democrats. It remains to be seen, however, if the governor will bring up that topic in his speech.