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Republican presidential candidates sparred over the economy, health care and immigration in last night’s debate at the Ronald Reagan Library. Like in the previous debate, only two candidates were questioned about education policy, and neither took the opportunity to say anything groundbreaking.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry, when asked about the recent $5 million budget cuts  he’s made to public education, defended them, saying “the reductions we made were thoughtful reductions.” He declined to elaborate on the logic behind the move, though. Instead, as he has many times so far on the campaign trail, Perry touted his record of improvement in the state’s schools, citing graduation rates that have climbed to 84 percent.

According to the Texas Department of Education, graduation rates for the 2009-2010 school year were, in fact, slightly above 84 percent. But by another measure, the State Rankings 2009, the state ranked 43rd out of 50 with a graduation rate of 61 percent.

Graduation and dropout rates are tricky statistics that can be calculated several different ways, leading to such discrepancies. Just last year, when Texas reported a 11 percent decline in its drop out rate, the Hechinger Report, among other news outlets, examined why there may be reason for skepticism about the data. Regardless of how many students graduate, college-readiness has also been called into question:  Only four state universities out of 38 institutions in the Lone Star state graduate more than 30 percent of full-time students within four years.

Newt Gingrich, also specifically asked about education, repeated what he’s said before; he supported Race to the Top and is pro-school choice. Again, he proposed a Pell grant system for the K-12 level, where all parents would be able to get money to send their children to whatever school they pick.

“If every parent in America had a choice,” he said, talking about charter schools he’s visited in Philadelphia. “You’d have dramatic opportunity.” Gingrich, like many of his competitors in the Republican race, has depicted charter schools as a better alternative to regular public schools, despite research that shows that this isn’t always true.

Notably, Gingrich also specified that schools should be required to report their scores. Transparency – or lack there of – has been a point of contention in the charter debate thus far, and Gingrich hinted that he would hold charter schools accountable for results.

Education popped up a few other times throughout the debate. Bachmann talked about her political  roots as an education activist and spoke of the need to localize education saying “we have the best results when he have the private sector and the family involved.”

Romney, when answering a question about immigration reform, mentioned the importance not having tuition breaks for illegal immigrants. Currently, nine states, including California, Texas and Utah,allow illegal immigrants to qualify for in-state tuition at public universities, sparing them from the tuition fees of out-of-state students.

And Ron Paul continued to be anti-big government without discrimination, saying that the decision to serve hot lunches at school for poor children should be left up to local and state governments – not Congress.

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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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