Convention requires presidential candidates to issue policy statements on all major policy areas. So while Mitt Romney’s election strategy centers on exploiting the weak economy, on Wednesday he checked the “education” box. But while the candidate’s mind may be focused on other things, Romney’s speech, and the corresponding white paper, deserve attention.
Romney chose to frame his education agenda as a critique of President Obama and teachers unions, but it’s actually something much more interesting: an extended argument with George W. Bush. More than anything, Romney’s education platform is a sign of how swiftly the consensus Republican position on education has been overwhelmed by Tea Party anti-federalism and the economic interests of big business.
The most concrete proposal in the Romney education plan is to gut President Bush’s signature domestic policy initiative, No Child Left Behind. Provisions requiring states to hold schools accountable for student test scores would be eliminated. Instead, states would simply be required to administer tests and make results available to parents via school “scorecards.” (NCLB already has a scorecard provision and it’s unclear how Romney’s proposal would improve on it.) School choice is the other part of the equation: Armed with the scorecards, parents would be permitted to choose among different school options. The theory is that the discipline of market competition would replace NCLB-style government regulation as the force that will help “millions of kids” who are, in Romney’s words, “getting a third-world education.”
Unfortunately, the policies that Romney proposes to empower parents are in no way plausible alternatives to NCLB. First, Romney calls for expanding the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship program as a “model for parental choice programs across the nation.” It is hard to imagine a more purely symbolic, un-scalable program than the D.C. scholarships, a federally-funded and Congressionally-imposed program that provides $8,000 to $12,000 awards to 1,600 low-income students in the District of Columbia (or about two percent of all the district’s regular public and charter school population) so that they can attend private schools. Studies have found that D.C. scholarship recipients are more likely to graduate from high school than similar students who stayed in D.C.’s oft-criticized public school system, but don’t seem to score better on standardized tests.
Romney’s white paper declares that “the program also saves taxpayers money because scholarship amounts are substantially less than per-pupil spending in D.C. Public Schools.” This is nonsense. The scholarships are funded by an extra federal appropriation, above and beyond what the local public schools receive. Many of the private schools that take scholarship students agree to absorb the substantial difference between the voucher and their standard tuition. The only reason the program is financially feasible for the government or the private schools is because it’s so small.
The purpose of the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship is fundamentally rhetorical—a way for Republicans to upbraid Democrats and teachers unions for opposing a program that helps low-income minority students. In that sense, it’s fantastically cost-effective. Any attempt to make it a “model” for the nation, however, would quickly run into obvious problems of budgeting and arithmetic. Expensive private schools aren’t going to give a huge discount to, and the federal government isn’t going to provide an extra $8,000 for, the millions of students Romney pledges to save.
The second Romney choice proposal is to voucherize the federal government’s two biggest K-12 initiatives, the Title I program for low-income children and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) for students with disabilities. Given that these programs distribute over $20 billion a year, this is a more serious idea.
But again, the numbers don’t add up. The federal government only contributes 10 cents on the K-12 education dollar, and that includes many programs beyond Title I and IDEA. Even if letting parents divert Title I dollars away from low-income schools to private school, tutoring services, and digital learning providers was a good idea (as Matt Yglesias notes, savvy parents would get extras for their kids while free-riding on the remaining money, which is mostly used for services that benefit whole schools, not individual students), it’s simply not enough money to create the kind of market dynamics on which Romney is depending as his sole source of energy and pressure to meet what he calls a “National Education Emergency.” (Caps in the original.)
The Romney plan has other provisions designed to spur school choice. Some of them are good ideas, albeit totally at odds with his larger critique of Obama as the great nationalizer of everything. In his foreword to the Romney plan, former Florida Governor Jeb Bush declares, “What we do not need are prescriptive top-down mandates emanating from Washington D.C., which are so fashionable among many in the nation’s capital.” This amounts to Jeb Bush denouncing his brother George for requiring states to adopt education policies that Jeb Bush himself implemented with great enthusiasm. Yet the plan itself would, to promote school choice, require states to do the following:
First, adopt open-enrollment policies that permit eligible students to attend public schools outside of their school district that have the capacity to serve them. Second, provide access to and appropriate funding levels for digital courses and schools, which are increasingly able to offer materials tailored to the capabilities and progress of each student when used with the careful guidance of effective teachers. And third, ensure that charter school programs can expand to meet demand, receive funding under the same formula that applies to all other publicly-supported schools, and access capital funds.
Inter-district open enrollment is a liberal policy idea promoted by organizations like the Century Foundation and the Citizen’s Commission on Civil Rights as a way of giving poor and minority urban students access to schools in wealthy white suburbs. As a rule, it is fiercely opposed by the (mostly-Republican) citizens of those suburbs, for obvious reasons. Telling states and local school districts whom they have to enroll and how they have to spend their money is the essence of intrusive federal education policy, far more so than NCLB mandates that give states broad discretion to set academic standards and don’t touch school district boundaries. (Also, some bureaucratic arm of the federal government would have to enforce these new regulations, which is perhaps why Romney’s previous promises to radically downsize the U.S. Department of Education were yesterday nowhere to be found.)
It is, moreover, easy for people who live in cities to forget that large numbers of American schoolchildren live in suburban, town, and rural areas that will never be served by a private, charter, or any physical school other than the local public one. Online education can be a good option for some students in some circumstances. But a fourth grader struggling to read and learn math in a mediocre rural public school needs someone looking out for her interests. NCLB tries, imperfectly but with real intention, to prod the only school she will ever have to get better. Romney’s plan leaves her at the mercy of what her local school chooses to provide.
On the whole, Romney’s all-choice-all-the-time education agenda is less a serious proposal than one that aspires to merely seem serious while not offending the reigning anti-federalist/pro-market orthodoxy of the Republican party circa 2012. He is not wrong to say that many students would benefit from a greater array of high-quality educational choices than they currently receive, or that the educational establishment often stands in the way of innovative new providers that challenge the position of comfortable incumbents. But the huge project of improving American education—the seriousness of which he very accurately describes—demands an engaged, disciplined federal policy led from the White House. Romney proposes to leave students to vagaries of a marketplace that will not give them what they need.
Kevin Carey works for Education Sector, a think tank in Washington, D.C., whose CEO, John Chubb, is a Romney education adviser.