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Democrats came out strong on education Tuesday, in a night devoted to praising President Barack Obama’s first term in office and focusing on federal education programs and funding from the littlest learners to college students.

democratic views on education
Michelle Obama speaks at the 2012 Democratic National Convention. (Photo by Sarah Butrymowicz)

It was a sharp contrast to the Republican convention last week, where education was mentioned mostly in passing until a speech by former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush championing school choice.

Shying away from Obama’s signature Race to the Top initiative, which spurred a slew of states to change their education policies, Democrats sought to draw a distinction between Obama’s willingness to spend on education – particularly in early education and higher education – and Republican challenger Mitt Romney, who Mass. Gov. Deval Patrick claimed had “cut education deeper than anywhere else in America” during his time as governor of Massachusetts.

In contrast, speakers pointed out Obama’s support for early education programs like the federally funded Head Start, which provides free preschool to low-income kids.

“He’s made sure more of our youngest children have the stable foundation that Head Start provides,” said Obama’s sister Maya Soetoro-ng. She noted that she and Obama “were blessed with a mother who taught us that education was the surest path from limited means to limitless opportunities.’’

Keynote speaker Julian Castro, mayor of San Antonio, Texas touched on the need for federally funded education programs. “We know that pre-k and student loans aren’t charity,” he said. “They’re a smart investment.”

And Ryan Case, a Pell grant recipient two semesters away from a bachelor’s degree in political science from the University of Colorado, took the stage to praise federal education funding and explain why it’s a major reason he volunteers for Obama.

“It wouldn’t have been possible if President Obama hadn’t fought for students like me,” Case said of his upcoming graduation. “There’s just no way I’d be able to pay for school without the Pell grant funding President Obama doubled.”

Pell grants, given to low-income students for higher education, are a major point of contention between Democrats and Republicans. President Obama has increased Pell grant funding, while Republicans have sought to decrease it or limit eligibility for the grants.

Case went on to say that Romney’s plan could reduce Pell grants. “We’d still work as hard,” he said. “We just wouldn’t see that hard work pay off. That’s the difference in this election.”

Also dropped in a few times? That Obama had taken out – and paid – his own student loans.

When they first married, First Lady Michelle Obama said during her speech, their monthly student loan payments were greater than their mortgage.

“We were young, so in love and so in debt,” she said. “That’s why Barack has fought so hard to increase student aid and keep interest rates down, because he wants every young person to fulfill their promise and be able to attend college without a mountain of debt.”

Keynote speaker Castro mocked Romney’s advice to students this summer, when he told them to start a business and borrow money from their parents if they have to.

“Gee, why didn’t I think of that,” Castro said. “I think [Romney’s] a good guy. He just has no idea how good he’s had it.”

The evening also featured a short speech from a veteran who was able to go to school though the Post 9/11 Veterans Educational Assistance Act of 2008. The bill, which pays for full tuition at public universities and partial tuition at private ones for those who served after Sept. 11, 2001, was signed into law under President George W. Bush. Obama, then a senator, supported and voted for it.

Nate Davis, a graduate of Xavier University and current director of veteran affairs at the school, praised the Obama administrations treatment of returning soldiers.

Gov. Patrick offered up another specific example – one of the few direct k-12 mentions of the night. Boston’s Orchard Garden Elementary School, he said, was one of the worst in the city just a year ago. But it’s risen to be one of the best in the state, partially through the help of policies promoted by the Obama administration.

“Today’s Republicans and their nominee for president tell us those [students] are on their own – on their own to deal with their poverty, with ill-prepared young parents, maybe who speak English as a second language, with an underfunded school; with neighborhood crime and blight, with no access to nutritious food,” Patrick said. “For this country to rise, they must rise… They must have a champion in the White House.”

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