But set that aside for a second. Consider things like charter schools and teacher evaluations.
“From where a teacher stands Romney and Obama look similar enough on the big questions that they are going to be largely indistinguishable,” says Rick Hess, director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative-leaning think tank.
He says both candidates support school choice, new forms of teacher evaluations and merit pay, and removing ineffective teachers from the classroom.
All initiatives that teacher unions dislike.
“There are definitely some differences of opinion about education between even Obama’s education reform plan and what teachers feel is best for students,” says Ohio Federation of Teachers President Melissa Cropper. ”What we have to keep in mind is that there’s an open door with Obama at least.”
The biggest difference of opinion between teachers and the president comes down to teacher evaluations. Obama wants to toughen the way teachers are evaluated, include student performance data in those evaluations, and tie that to compensation. Obama also supports the expansion of charter schools, though he does oppose voucher programs.
Romney is an advocate for all types of school choice, and he’s in line with Democrats when it comes to reforming teacher evaluations. Overall, the Republican candidate opposes the union seniority method or paying and firing teachers.
Improving the quality of teachers was part of then-candidate Obama’s rhetoric in 2008, but it really took a backseat to the economy.
Nonetheless, teachers were a huge force for Obama back then, especially in swing states like Ohio. Cropper says they’ll be out there this time too, at least some of them.
“We do have to work on the enthusiasm level because we do have teachers who are not a hundred percent supportive of Obama’s education plan,” Cropper says. “But when you look at the difference between the two it’s obvious that Obama would be the right choice.”
Still, teachers’ love of Obama was in the air at a recent rally preceding a day of canvassing for the Democratic ticket in Cleveland.
Eileen Sweeney, a teacher in Shaker Heights about half an hour east of Cleveland says she does worry about some of Obama’s policies to improve education, especially when it comes to school choice.
“School choice concerns me because I don’t think that you can really expand school choice without simultaneously improving your public system,” Sweeney says. “It concerns me because I believe in the public school system.”
Still, she says she’ll canvas and cold-call for President Obama and the rest of the Democrats running on her ballot, because the alternative would be worse. An alternative she says Ohio teachers are all too familiar with.
“When you have issues like SB 5, we will remember in November,” Sweeney says. “We’re bringing it out this November.”
And of course education funding – the place where candidates Obama and Romney part in a big way – cannot be ignored.
Annette Chase, a Cleveland teacher says that for her, the choice is clear.
“When I look at the information we know about Mitt Romney, I mean public education would be in real trouble,” she says. “Paul Ryan just wants to slash education.”
Gov. Romney has talked about consolidating the U.S. Department of Education with another federal department and his running mate Paul Ryan’s budget proposes cutting education and other social services by an estimated 33 percent.
Their personification in Ohio government – Republican Gov. John Kasich – cut schools’ funding by about $700 million in his 2011 budget according to Politifact Ohio.
Meanwhile, the Obama administration has funneled money to schools through several federal programs, including the stimulus package and the $4.3 billion Race to the Top competitive grant.
Rick Hess, the education policy wonk from the American Enterprise Institute, says the debate over education policy ultimately comes down to funding – and to how the candidates talk about unions.
“I think we can expect that teachers are going to be pretty enthusiastic about the president. It’s not because they like his education policies – they don’t. It’s because they’re really concerned about what a Romney administration would do in terms of domestic spending.”
–Rick Hess, American Enterprise Institute
“I think we can expect that teachers are going to be pretty enthusiastic about the president. It’s not because they like his education policies – they don’t,” says Hess. “It’s because they’re really concerned about what a Romney administration would do in terms of domestic spending, and I think they feel that as much has they might disagree with President Obama on specific issues, that he’s for more spending, he’s for protecting public sector jobs, and ultimately that it’s a dispute within the family.”
Hess says Obama might want to thank Gov. Kasich for delivering the state’s teachers, who are still largely energized by last year’s fight over Senate Bill 5 – the effort to curb public employee unions’ collective bargaining power.
The same cannot be said in Chicago, where the president’s former Chief of Staff is mayor, his Education Secretary used to lead the school district, and the teachers union just finished a week and a half strike against Democratic education-reform policies.