Mitt Romney has been pretty quiet about his stance on education, to the point where even some of his advisers have been unable to say exactly how a Romney White House would watch over the public school system. His speech to The Latino Coalition's Annual Economic Summit at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce on Wednesday was intended to clarify things. It didn’t.
We still don’t know what the former Massachusetts governor would actually do as president because his boldest idea, emphasizing the Republican buzzwords “school choice,” has no chance of becoming a reality. Romney would require states to let low-income and special-needs students enroll at any school throughout an entire state—public or private. The federal money those schools now spend on those students would follow them to the school of their choice.
Romney previously has pledged to make the Education Department “a heck of a lot smaller” and has said that the federal government should distance itself from education. However, his statewide-choice idea turns the localized funding mechanism for public schools on its head, and suggests that he may not be as committed as other Republicans to getting the federal government out of public schools.
Right now, local communities are tasked with determining which schools are eligible for extra federal funds for serving a disadvantaged student population. Under Romney’s plan, those determinations would be placed in the hands of the states, with fairly severe federal oversight, based on a child’s poverty level or learning disability. Romney would insist that states give families the option of moving to schools outside of their districts, said Oren Cass, the governor’s domestic policy adviser.
The idea almost immediately runs into logistical difficulties. What happens if a good school is overbooked already? What happens to the schools everyone might ditch? “There needs to be a mechanism that addresses the capacity of all the schools in the state,” Cass explained. “We would require states to provide access outside the district, but we recognize that any given district is going to have to have capacity restrictions that have to be respected.”
Fair enough, but that kind of district-level respect can only lead to federal regulatory disaster. Under any president, the federal government is playing with fire when it tries to draft one set of regulations determining how to navigate a thousand different localized mazes.
President Obama’s campaign advisers were quick to jump on Romney’s overall proposal, calling it backward and stifling to education. They were appropriately baffled by Romney’s plan to allow low-income or learning-disabled students to choose from any school in their state. Obama for America Policy Director James Kvaal pointed out that federal funds for low-income and disabled students are distributed based on the percentage of needy students in a particular school. Romney’s proposal would alter those percentages. “Governor Romney appears to be proposing mechanical changes to how that funding is allocated,” Kvaal said. It is unclear, however, how it would work, he added.
The rest of Romney’s education agenda is predictably Republican. He takes aim at “special interests,” code for teachers unions, and promises to push states to emphasize teacher achievement rather than tenure. This is a tried and true mantra from both Republicans and Democrats that means little beyond the obvious sentiment that good teachers should be rewarded. Obama has made similar comments and instituted a series of partnership meetings with the teachers unions to encourage such policies.
Romney says he will encourage states to adopt teacher-merit rules through block grants, which is a bit confusing because block grants don’t generally come with strings attached. If they did, they would look more like Obama’s Race to the Top competitive grant program, which many Republicans don’t like.
One area in which Romney would clearly shine as president would be in promoting public charter schools. In that respect, he would be similar to Obama, also a fan of charter schools. Romney clearly distinguishes himself from Obama on school vouchers, pledging to reinstate the private-school voucher program in the District of Columbia that Obama killed last year.