Much to the chagrin of moderator Bob Schieffer, Monday night's presidential debate on foreign policy took a decidedly domestic turn.
During a conversation about what America needs to do to remain internationally competitive, President Barack Obama took the opportunity to lace into Republican presidential contender Mitt Romney on teacher hiring.
"Governor Romney, when you were asked by teachers whether or not this would help the economy grow, you said this isn't going to help the economy grow," Obama said.
This dispute dates back to the last few months. The Republican presidential candidate mocked Obama in June for proposing the hiring of more public sector employees, stating:
[Obama] wants another stimulus, he wants to hire more government workers. He says we need more firemen, more policemen, more teachers. Did he not get the message of Wisconsin? The American people did. It's time for us to cut back on government and help the American people.
Days later, Romney tried to take them back calling accusations that he would be opposed to hiring more teachers "completely absurd." Then, during the first debate: "Well, first, I love great schools. … And the key to great schools, great teachers," Romney said. "So I reject the idea that I don’t believe in great teachers or more teachers."
Soon after, Romney suggested to the Des Moines Register that the president's idea to hire more teachers is misguided and would not result in economic growth. "Hiring school teachers is not going to raise the growth of the U.S. economy over the next three-to-four years," Romney said.
Obama then made a very strong statement on class size -- perhaps the strongest he's made in his tenure. "When you were asked about reduced class sizes, you said class sizes don't make a difference," Obama said to Republican presidential contender Mitt Romney. He continued:
But I tell you, if you talk to teachers, they will tell you it does make a difference. And if we've got math teachers who are able to provide the kind of support that they need for our kids, that's what's going to determine whether or not the new businesses are created here. Companies are going to locate here depending on whether we've got the most highly skilled workforce, and the kinds of budget proposals that you've put forward -- when we don't ask either you or me to pay a dime more in terms of reducing the deficit but instead we slash support for education -- that's undermining our long-term competitiveness. That is not good for America's position in the world. And the world notices.
Why does it matter? Class size hasn't always been such a clear cut issue for the Obama administration -- but it is an issue near and dear to the hearts of parent voters, and teachers' unions. It hits on a tension in Obama's education policy: he has tried to appease teachers' unions by pumping stimulus money into hiring more teachers and thus preventing the further ballooning of class sizes, while encouraging reforms like teacher evaluations through Race to the Top that Democratic education reformers favor but that angered the unions.
Class size has become a pulse point for education in the election, with Romney telling Philadelphia teachers in the spring that class size doesn't matter for educational outcomes, and that "Just getting smaller classrooms didn't seem to be the key." Romney also made fun of Obama for trying to keep more teachers in the classroom.
This summer, Obama's campaign released an advertisement that focused on class size, a man named Kevin who said, "Some of our children's greatest experiences have been in the smaller classrooms."
But at the time, Romney seized on the advertisement, saying that Obama contradicted with Arne Duncan, his own education secretary. That's because until recently, the Obama administration also had been less than strident about keeping classes small. In 2011, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said that "class size is a sacred cow and we need to take it on." Duncan later clarified in an interview with The Huffington Post that he'd rather have better teachers in larger classes. "My point there was that I think the quality of the teacher is so hugely important," Duncan said. "I've said things like, give me the parent, give me an option of 28 children in a class with a phenomenal teacher or 22 children in a class with a mediocre teacher. If I was given that choice, I would choose a larger class size."
The administration also noted that in its guidelines for rewriting No Child Left Behind, "we support shifting away from class-sized based reduction that is not evidence-based," adding that high-performing school systems in Asia have larger class sizes.
Though small class size is a favorite of parents, research on class sizes is mixed. A 1980s Tennessee study, known as STAR, examined class size over four years and found the benefits of small classes were pronounced as kids learn how to read and add in their earlier years, but less important in the older grades. Since then, no rigorous experiments have been performed.
"Let me get back to foreign policy," moderator Bob Schieffer said after Obama's remarks. And then Romney responded to Obama on education by boasting about Massachusetts top status on k-12 exams.
Education came up yet again, when Obama said America can't retain its competitive edge against countries like China if Romney cuts the education budget (Romney has promised not to cut spending, but critics say the math doesn't add up with his budget plan).
Later yet, Romney shot back. "It's just a tragedy in a nation so prosperous as ours, that these last four years have been so hard," Romney said. "And that's why it's so critical that we make America once again the most attractive place in the world to start businesses, to build jobs, to grow the economy. And that's not going to happen by just hiring teachers."
Despite Obama's infusion of stimulus money to keep teachers at work, a White House report found that Since June 2009, more than 300,000 teachers have lost their jobs. In August 2012 alone, schools cut 7,000 educators from their payrolls. The result: an increase in the student-to-teacher ratio for the first time in a decade.
And as HuffPost's Sam Stein wrote earlier this month:
There are also questions over the idea that hiring teachers does not produce any economic benefit as studies have shown that there has been an economic impact to the layoff of teachers and other government jobs.
"I love teachers," Romney continued. "And I'm happy to have states and communities that want to hire teachers do that. By the way, I don't like to have the federal government start pushing its weight deeper and deeper into the schools. Let the states and localities do that. I was a governor -- the federal government didn't hire our teachers. I want to get our private sector growing, and I know how to do it."
While it may be true that the federal government usually doesn't hire teachers -- on average, federal education spending amounts to less than 10 percent of education dollars -- Obama's stimulus package did. The stimulus fund allotted $98 billion for education starting in 2009. States relied on this one-time cash injection to close 25 percent of their budget gaps and to save 420,000 education jobs between 2009 and the 2010-11 school year.
Schieffer was not amused. "I think we all love teachers," he said.