Anybody who thinks President Barack Obama’s education policies have been unfriendly to public education should pay close attention to Mitt Romney’s school reform vision.
If you don’t like Obama’s agenda, you might like Romney’s even less.
A Chance For Every Child is the education program that the presumptive Republican presidential nominee spelled out in a speech and a white paper released Wednesday.
Romney is advancing a pro-choice, pro-voucher, pro-states-rights education program that seems certain to hasten the privatization of the public education system.
In a Romney-run education world, the parents of poor and special-education students would choose a school - public or private, based on standardized test scores and other data - and then a specific amount of public money would follow the child to the school.
It’s a voucher system that would, among other things, require families of the neediest children to constantly shop around for schools in an unstable market and would probably exacerbate the very thing - a chronic achievement gap - all of this is supposedly intended to fix. Obama opposes vouchers.
Romney’s education vision is based on an ideology that demonizes unions and views the market as the driver of education reform. His program is not based on quality research or best practices. Indeed, it doesn’t mention the one reform that has been shown over years to be effective: early-childhood education.
It also ignores the role that outside-school factors play in how well a student does in the classroom. School reformers and politicians can talk all they want about how a great teacher can overcome the effects of living in poverty and turmoil, but, systemically, they can’t. A hungry or tired or sick student won’t do as well as one who isn’t. You only have to look at the most successful schools - traditional public and public charter and private - to know this to be true.
Even though Romney has in the past praised the president’s education policies - they both, for example, support the expansion of charter schools - his white paper sharply criticizes Obama and works hard to draw distinctions between them.
One area where they part company is the role of the federal government in education.
Obama’s Education Department has been powerful in shaping how states reform their schools by dangling billions of federal dollars - with major conditions attached. The problem has been those conditions, not the notion that the federal government has some role to play in public education.
Romney’s view is that the federal government should have pretty much no control over local education. He would eliminate the accountability system in the unpopular No Child Left Behind law, which would mean that states would no longer have to meet federal requirements for improving schools. States would again be left alone to run their systems, a situation that led President George W. Bush - that famous liberal - to insist on federal mandates a decade ago.
Under Romney’s plan, standardized tests would remain central to school and teacher "accountability" (even though these tests weren’t designed for high-stakes purposes). It is fitting that the foreword to the white paper was written by Jeb Bush, who, when governor of Florida from 1999-2007, created the test-based accountability system that has served as a model for other states (even though it has had so many problems that one major newspaper in Florida recently declared it a failure).
Romney opposes what he calls "unnecessary" teacher-certification requirements, leaving the teaching door open to anybody who, for example, thinks they can teach math because they got good grades in the subject.
He calls the federal "highly qualified teacher" requirement well-intentioned but says it serves only to "prevent talented individuals" from becoming teachers. This suggests that nobody on Romney’s team knows - or wants to acknowledge - that Congress has already undercut the requirement to allow anybody in a teacher-training program to be considered highly qualified.
Romney’s white paper repeatedly assails teachers unions while ignoring some key realities. He accuses Obama of being beholden to the unions. The unions would probably find that amusing. They only reluctantly came to work with the administration on some key reform initiatives.
The National Education Association, the largest labor union in the country, has endorsed Obama, but that’s hardly because it is in love with his education policies. Dennis Van Roekel, the NEA president, has said that the union supports Obama because of his belief in public education and other shared values, and that any Republican presidential candidate would be "very much anti-collective bargaining and anti-public education."
The whole "blame the union" strategy has a central internal inconsistency: The problems in public education are the same in states with and without unions. The teachers unions may not have bathed themselves in glory and may have dragged their feet about reforming teacher evaluation, but it hardly seems fair to pin the "crisis in education" on them.
There is no question that the public education system, as the country has known it for decades, has faced strong challenges and has failed too many of the children in it. But rather than finding ways to strengthen it, the Bush and Obama administrations have made things more difficult for children and teachers - all in the name of accountability and higher standards. If Romney gets a chance to run education policy according to his plan, expect things to get worse.
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