On education, Democrats and Republicans still know who they are. It's just harder this time around to recognize each other.
Stark differences still separate the presidential campaigns, say educators and policy analysts. But a swelling middle ground -- particularly around charter school expansion, teacher performance evaluations and national standards -- has opened significant rifts within the parties.
Consider these voices, for instance:
Here's Andrea Flinders, president of the Kansas City chapter of the American Federation of Teachers. She and her organization are backing President Obama, but this is how she sums up Obama and U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan's first term:
"It's been a difficult four years for non-charter public schools."
And here's Herman Kriegshauser, the executive director of Missouri's Citizens for Educational Freedom -- an organization allied with Republican nominee Mitt Romney. He'd rather Romney take a stand against the move toward national Common Core Standards for schools, and even eliminate the federal Department of Education altogether.
Said Kriegshauser: "I'd like to see the federal government get out of it."
The lines between supporters and detractors have been fuzzier than usual.
A Chicago teachers strike that was resolved this week seemed at first to put the Democrats on the hot seat.
Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Obama's former chief of staff, pushed against the union over policies championed nationwide by Obama and Duncan to make student test performance a significant part of teacher evaluations -- a stand also favorable to most Republicans.
"In many ways the GOP and the Democrats are not too different right now (on education)," said James Shuls, an education policy analyst for the Missouri Show-Me Institute.
"Romney is trying to tie (Obama) to the teacher unions and Chicago," he said. But "Obama's record is not in one accord with teacher unions."
When the Republican ticket spoke out against the teachers' union, saying the GOP candidates were for the children and parents, it backfired, said Gwen Grant, president of the Urban League of Greater Kansas City.
Many parents and students quickly joined teachers on the picket line.
"In the middle class ... there is a lot of support for unions and support for worker's rights," she said.
The Chicago experience, while revealing the Democrats' divisions, also showed that party allegiances are not changing. The concern, campaign watchers said, is that enthusiasm in support of the campaigns might wane.
If it takes differences to re-energize party support, there are plenty that could trump the similarities.
Obama, in his first term, created the Race to the Top grants that helped distribute some $100 billion in American Recovery and Reinvestment Act funds targeted at turning around the nation's poorest performing schools.
He also gave states the opportunity to escape the sanctions of the No Child Left Behind Act by proposing their own accountability and school improvement plans.
Obama also doubled Pell Grant scholarships and created plans to give college graduates who take public sector jobs the chance to delay or even get reprieves on repaying college loan debt.
Romney is promising more school choice. He has proposed giving families control of where federal Title I dollars for low-income families and funds for children with disabilities are spent, including letting the money go to private schools.
The Republican ticket, based on the budget plan outlined by Romney's running mate, Paul Ryan, would restrict Pell Grants, saying that increasing federal student aid does not encourage colleges to lower tuition and increases costs on most students.
The Ryan budget also calls for a 20 percent cut to all domestic discretionary spending, though it doesn't specify how much would come out of education.
The flexibility the Obama administration has allowed states in place of No Child Left Behind has given states the opportunity to show that education's various constituencies can work together, said Chris Guinther, president of the Missouri National Education Association.
For instance, the teachers' union is supporting Missouri's accountability plan, which includes test score performance as one of several factors in its teacher evaluation system.
Private and parochial school leaders like Dan Peters, the superintendent of schools in the Catholic Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph, appreciate the continued discussion on advancing school choice.
Peters would like to see more. He'd like to see tax credits in support of tuition scholarships to help non-public schools play larger roles to boost education where public schools are struggling.
As for charter schools -- public schools that operate independently with their own school boards -- they've never been so well positioned in a political campaign.
"We really believe both parties are supportive," said Doug Thaman, executive director of the Missouri Charter Public School Association.
He'd like to see more opportunities for charter school expansion -- but, as with most of education's constituencies, the 2012 campaign requires a taste for compromise.
One subject on which both parties have been much too silent is the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, said Todd Fuller, a spokesman for the Missouri State Teachers Association.
The ESEA, which was named the No Child Left Behind Act with revisions driven by President George W. Bush in 2001, is past due for reauthorization.
Obama, while Congress has struggled for common ground, began issuing waivers for states that developed their own accountability plans for the time being.
"But what's the final answer?" Fuller said. "Let's have a serious debate on that on both sides."