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Education may not have topped the average voter’s priority list this year, but that didn’t stop the presidential candidates from making it a focus throughout the long campaign season. As most Americans cast their ballot Tuesday worrying mainly about the economy and the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy, both candidates are no doubt hopeful that voters will also remember their frequent messages about how they plan to help the country’s students.

education policies
President Obama and Mitt Romney at the second presidential debate on Oct. 16. (Photo by Scout Tufankjian/Obama for America)

President Obama has asked for another four years to continue the policies he started, frequently alluding to his Race to the Top initiative which pushed 46 states to undertake education reforms in hopes of winning federal grant money. Going forward, he’s outlined plans for increasing the pool of math and science teachers and improving training programs at community colleges.

Mitt Romney agreed with some of the policies Obama has promoted, like merit pay for teachers. But he has maintained that states should make the majority of education policy decisions, not the White House. His education platform centers on increasing school choice by creating a nationwide voucher system for low-income and special needs children.

In the last two months, the differences between Obama and Romney’s education policies became more crystalized and the Obama campaign increased its efforts to draw a distinction between the two candidates and their willingness to invest in education. The drive to highlight Obama’s education platform resulted in off-topic debate answers, a series of attack ads and lots of talk about education on the campaign trail.

The Democrats have sought to portray Obama as the candidate who views investing in education as a priority, in contrast to his opponent, who they argue views it as an expense. Yet Romney surprised many educators by announcing point blank during the first debate that he will not cut education funding and disagreeing with his running mate, Paul Ryan, who supports shrinking Pell Grants for low-income students attending college.

The campaigns repeated their respective arguments that their candidate would be the one to repair the country’s school system in the final weekend before Election Day.

Michelle Obama spoke to students at Ohio’s Miami University Saturday, and highlighted her husband’s investments in Pell Grants. “When it comes to giving young people the education they deserve, Barack knows that like so many of you, we couldn’t have attended college without financial aid,” she said.

Romney has woven education into his last-minute pitch, tying Obama to teachers unions in his stump speech. It’s not the first time the Republicans have tried to connect the president to the unions.

“You know that if the president is re-elected, he will say every good thing he can about education, but in the final analysis, he will do what his largest campaign supporters – the public sector unions – insist upon,” Romney said during a speech in Wisconsin on Friday. “When I am president, I will be a voice of the children and their parents. There is no union for the PTA.”

Although Obama’s education policies, such as supporting the expansion of charter schools and tying teacher evaluations to test scores, have rankled teachers and union leadership, union support for his reelection does not seem to have diminished. Both the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers have spent months targeting undecided voters in swing states and trying to convince them to vote for Obama.

“President Obama’s vision for the kids in America and the role education will play in their lives – I have no doubt that is absolutely in sync with ours,” National Education Association President Dennis Van Roekel told The Hechinger Report in September. “What we disagree with him at times is how to get there.”

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