Economy & Budget

Romney calls K-12 education ‘the Civil Rights issue of our era’

With all the noise about private equity and public waste, many people missed the unveiling of Mitt Romney’s education platform at the Latino Coalition’s Annual Economic Summit in Washington D.C. late last month. Education, explained Romney, was the “civil rights issue of our era” and, like many presidential hopefuls, he declared the nation’s failing education system in need of dramatic reform.

This contention is only partially true, of course. Government-run education is failing; and it typically fails those who are supposed to benefit the most: the poor. These days, it is in urban, mostly liberal, districts that people are finding ways to challenge union control and offer parents more options. Washington has been a drag, rather than a driver, of this innovation. And it has gotten worse.

Here’s all you need to know about this administration’s record on education: the National Education Association, the country’s largest union, endorsed Barack Obama in July, long before a Republican nominee had even been picked. (Surely it didn’t hurt that the administration turned its back on a school voucher program that would have helped 1,700 poor kids in Washington, D.C. escape unions.)

‘A Chance for Every Child’

Keeping all this in mind, Romney’s paper, “A Chance for Every Child: Mitt Romney’s Plan for Restoring the Promise of American Education,” is a surprisingly compelling campaign document. If implemented it would begin to reverse George W. Bush’s top-down “No Child Left Behind” model and end the administration’s union-saving gimmick, “Race to the Top.” In the plan, Romney’s offers a revised voucher plan that links federal funding to low-income kids, following them to another public, charter or private school.

Moreover, unlike his agility on some other policy matters, Romney seems awfully comfortable talking about education. In a campaign event at a Philadelphia school, for instance, he proposed a counterintuitive and potentially unpopular thought, asserting that “it’s not the classroom size that’s driving the success of those school systems.” Some pundits, who believe without basis, that more money and less work will produce higher educational outcomes, went into shock. (To begin with, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, teacher-pupil ratios have been going down since

1955. Second, several studies show that class size is a predominate problem in education.) Yet, Romney didn’t back off.

Jim Stergios, executive director of the Massachusetts free market think tank, Pioneer Institute, tells me that as governor, Romney was a proponent of charter schools and vetoed legislation that would have created a moratorium on charters. “In order to keep charter expansions moving ahead during his tenure, he supported changes in school funding that made the expansions less disadvantageous to districts,” Stergios explains. “His administration was also firm on accountability, closing a couple of charters that did not deliver promised results.”

Markets create their own accountability. Private school vouchers, though, are prohibited in Massachusetts (as it is in some other states) by, in this case, two separate constitutional amendments. That said, according to Stergios, Romney’s early education programs “provided lots of choice; in fact, every year the choice component of these programs is huge, delivering education to toddlers using mainly private providers.” These early education programs are typically opposed by unions. Once parents experience choice, it’s difficult to cut it off.

Polls show voucher popularity

Politically, it seems that Romney would benefit from making education a more prominent issue. Unlike cultural and economic issues, support for school reform and choice cuts across class and geography.

A recent poll by Friedman Foundation (a pro-school choice organization) found that 61 percent of moms and 55 percent of adults polled nationally favor a school voucher system that would allow tax dollars to follow kids to private or public schools. Nearly every poll on the matter finds that parents desire more choices.

“Now that he’s started talking about education, my bet is that he stays on it,” says Stergios, “because his record in Massachusetts is strong-far stronger than anything President Obama has to stand on.”

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