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From the Democratic Convention: Education Takes Center Stage

Democrats came out strong on education Tuesday, with speakers focusing on federal education programs and funding from the littlest learners to college students.

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.”

This story originally appeared in The Hechinger Report.

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