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Bronx Community College (Photo by Ryan Brenizer) Credit: Photo by Ryan Brenizer

NEW YORK—Republican presidential candidates on Thursday night criticized the Obama administration’s newly announced plan to lower student-loan repayments, saying it would simply shift the burden of costs from students to taxpayers.

The plan would limit loan repayments to the equivalent of no more than 10 percent of students’ income for 20 years, with the rest of the debt forgiven, instead of the current maximum of 15 percent for 25 years. The president has said he will use his executive authority to make that change rather than wait for Congress to act.

Michele Bachmann

Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota called Obama’s planned move an “abuse of power,” and she and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich said that students would have to repay the forgiven loans as taxpayers.

“That’s a Ponzi scheme by even Gov. [Rick] Perry’s standards,” Gingrich said.

The candidates spoke to a crowded auditorium at the College Board Annual Forum.

Gingrich attacked student loans in general, arguing that they let students live beyond their means while they’re in school. In contrast, he highlighted the College of the Ozarks—a private, Christian liberal-arts college in Missouri—where students pay no tuition but work to cover their educational costs, allowing most to graduate debt-free.

Newt Gingrich

Much of the discussion was about primary and secondary education.

Businessman Herman Cain, who has pulled several points ahead of former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney in two polls released this week, spoke of the importance of applying business practices to education, from relying on competition among states for funding to using merit pay to improve teaching.

“Just as in any other endeavor, we need to do a better job of providing pay for performance,” Cain said. “Everyone likes to be recognized when they do well. Let’s reward good teachers.”

Herman Cain (Photo by Gage Skidmore, used under a Creative Commons license)

Gingrich agreed, calling merit pay a small but important piece of education reform.

Research casts doubt on the effectiveness of merit pay for teachers. A 2010 study by Vanderbilt University researchers found that offering teachers bonuses based on student test scores did not lead to improved student achievement. And New York City scrapped its merit pay plan this year after research showed it made no difference.

Gingrich dismissed this, citing examples from the private sector. “To suggest merit pay doesn’t work would reject everything we know about America,” he said.

Rick Santorum (Photo by Gage Skidmore, used under a Creative Commons license)

Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum also drew a parallel between the business world and education when discussing his support for vouchers. He said parents are the customers of the education system.

“I sort of envision a model where school districts work with the parents to design a curriculum and educational setting for each child,” Santorum said. “Why can’t we have a customized education system in this country?”

Most of the 2012 Republican presidential candidates—Romney, Perry, Texas Rep. Ron Paul, former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman and former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson—did not attend the forum.

There was a consensus among the candidates present that parents should have more options for their children through such things as charter and virtual schools, homeschooling and vouchers.

The Obama administration has also pushed school choice, mostly by giving financial incentives for states to lift caps on the number of charter schools allowed to open.

But while they supported school choice, almost all of the Republican candidates present also called for reducing the role of the federal Department of Education, or eliminating it altogether.

President Ronald Reagan was the first to suggest such a move, when he came to office in 1980, the year after the department was created. Republicans again called for getting rid of it in 1996.

Both Gingrich and Cain said federal money for education should go to states in the form of block grants. Gingrich said the states, in turn, should give the money to parents to enroll their children in whatever school they wish. He said he’d reduce the Department of Education’s role to that of researcher and disseminator of information.

Bachmann said, as she has before, that she’d eliminate the department altogether. Santorum said there was “not a big role” for the federal government in his education plans, beyond leading the national discussion around education.

Cain said it was “premature” to call for abolishing the federal Department of Education. “I, as president, want to look at the Department of Education and make that determination when all the facts are considered, when all the programs are evaluated.”

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Sarah Butrymowicz oversees and contributes to The Hechinger Report’s investigative and data work covering all levels of education, from early childhood to K-12 to higher education. She has worked at...

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