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Unraveling the Hypocrisy of Mitt Romney, Education, and Big Bird

04 Oct

Last night’s presidential debate between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney was difficult to watch for two reasons: First, Mitt Romney said a lot of things that were misleading at best, blatantly false at worst, or otherwise devoid of details the rest of the time. Second, President Obama did very little to directly object to these half-truths and untruths. As one colleague of mine put it, the President was playing a prevent defense–not trying to score points, just trying not to make any terrible gaffes while hoping that Romney didn’t score enough points to win the debate and perhaps the election.

On that score, polling shows that Romney handily won last night’s debate. Now, history is less clear on whether the results of that single debate will have much of an effect on the outcome of the election, but at issue for me is a larger point: I feel compelled to speak up where the President did not. Unfortunately, I cannot do so for every issue that was discussed last night, nor do I have any misgivings that I will reach even a respectable fraction of the people who saw last night’s debate. Rather, for me, this is about principles. In particular, it’s about not letting misleading information be peddled to the American public as if it were true. It’s about respecting you to much to let you be pandered to. And, it’s about helping Big Bird keep his job.

Last night, both President Obama and Governor Romney extolled the virtues of education. They both agreed that America’s education system is lacking and that this creates deficiencies in our young people that ultimately have a negative effect on our economy as jobs are shipped overseas and new technology is developed elsewhere in places where math and science curricula are pursued relentlessly. The difference of opinion came about when each candidate spoke of their specific plan to improve education.

President Obama said that he would create a program that would produce 100,000 new math and science teachers (which also creates jobs, coincidentally). He said that he would work to keep college tuition more affordable, and he has actually backed this up with action already: introducing a special student loan consolidation program that puts a little extra money back in the pockets of people just like me, who have accumulated debt from pursuing higher education.

Governor Romney, on the other hand, said we need to improve American education, but then gave no specifics of how he would do so. Later in the evening, however, as he was addressing the federal deficit, he cited funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, parent company of PBS Television as an example of the type of program he would cut. When he realized that the debate’s moderator, Jim Lehrer, works for PBS, he was quick to indicate that he likes both Big Bird and Newshour (Lehrer’s show). There are three problems with this.

First, only about 15% of PBS funding comes from federal support, with the other 85% coming from private donations. This means that even if Romney had his way, and pulled all federal funding for the network, it’s not clear that PBS would have to resort to selling advertisements, as Romney has suggested they should. A small increase in private donations could be enough to offset the lost support. Second, the amount of federal funding to PBS represents less than 0.01% of the federal budget. This is problematic because Romney is citing the proposed cuts to PBS as a way of reducing the deficit and balancing the budget. Something that’s less than one one-hundredth of a percent isn’t going to do that. He could cut PBS 100 times and it would only be 1% of the budget. Deficit reduction will require two things: generating additional revenue, and reducing spending of large programs, like Medicaid, Medicare, and Social Security. Governor Romney wants to do all of that, too, (well, not the revenue-raising part) but he didn’t mention it, because he knows those cuts are unpopular. Of course, Big Bird is popular, too, but fortunately for Romney, children can’t vote.

Finally, and most importantly, it’s problematic because it provides some insight into Governor Romney’s policy positions on American education. On the one hand, he says the system needs to be improved. On the other hand, he’s willing to cut all federal funding for PBS, which is an important component of early childhood education in this country, even though it stands to have next to no impact on reducing the deficit. So, does he really care about improving education for the American public as a whole? I don’t think so. I think he sees education as he sees everything else, including health care: If you work hard and are successful (i.e., wealthy), you can buy all the education and health care you want. If you’re lazy, unsuccessful, or weren’t born with a silver spoon in your mouth, you don’t deserve an education or health care. In all of this, Romney seems to be forgetting that his own father was once on welfare, and that his mother credited that program with giving them the solid foundation and the support they needed to become successful. I guess it’s easy to take it all for granted if that’s all you’ve ever known. Maybe if he would have watched Sesame Street as a child, he could appreciate just how important it–and programs like it–are to American children. Especially the ones who will never have the opportunity to go to a nice Ivy League university on their daddy’s dime.

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