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Education Re-Emerges as National Issue

(Chris Maddaloni/CQ Roll Call)

Even as education became a theme at the Republican National Convention, it was clear the policy lines between the parties are murkier than on many other issues.

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie used his keynote address Tuesday evening to take a swipe at Democrats over their support for teachers' unions, even though he has successfully negotiated with them in his home state.

"They believe the educational savages will only put themselves ahead of children, that self-interest will always trump common sense, they believe in pitting unions against teachers, educators against parents, lobbyists against children," Christie said. "They believe in teachers' unions. "We believe in teachers."

Randi Weingarten, the head of the American Federation of Teachers, was quick to say in response that Christie did negotiate an overhaul of education policy.

"Gov. Christie, just three weeks ago . gave the teachers' unions tremendous credit," Weingarten said in an interview.

Progress on national education policy has stalled. The Elementary and Secondary Education Act, most recently known as No Child Left Behind, technically expired in 2007. Despite work in Congress and proposals from the White House, the reauthorization is on a laundry list of measures that lawmakers have no intention of addressing.

That's led the Obama administration to grant states waivers for some of the more onerous requirements of NCLB.

Speaking Thursday at a panel discussion held in conjunction with the convention, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) said he thought the waivers addressed some local "angst" with the law.

"What that has done, though, is, I believe, put in place substitution of Obama standards for what was in the statute originally, instead of what I believe Mitt Romney is talking about, which is to give much more flexibility to the local level school districts, to the parents, to begin to empower them to use this information that came from NCLB," Cantor said at a forum sponsored by Bloomberg and the Tampa Bay Host Committee.

In granting the waivers, though, the administration is in several instances responding to the requests of local districts and jurisdictions that span the political spectrum.

The teachers' unions argue that instead of flexibility and local control, Cantor, Romney and other Republicans really want to undermine not just the unions, but spending on K-12 education more broadly.

"The only strategy they have raised is the one that actually doubles down on disinvestment in public school," Weingarten said in reference to the GOP push for block grants of education and school vouchers.

Weingarten called the criticism of unions "a smokescreen for divesting from education" that is "is really a disservice to the American people."

Weingarten says this differs from Democrats, even those who have criticized the unions at the local level.

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