Conservatives React to Romney’s Education Ideas

Back to July 2012 Ed Reporter

Conservatives React to
Romney’s Education Ideas

Mitt Romney’s education plan, A Chance for Every Child, has drawn a mixed reaction from both ends of the political spectrum. Though the plan emphasizes school choice, parental rights, increased transparency of school results, and rightly chastises education unions for slowing down reform, it also features more of the federal meddling that marked former President Bush’s failed education policies.

For example, Romney would make federal Title I and IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act) funds portable for low-income children and children with disabilities. As Romney said: “To receive the full complement of federal education dollars, states must provide students with ample school choice. In addition, digital learning options must not be prohibited. And charter schools or similar education choices must be scaled up to meet student demand.” (Emphasis added.)

Unfortunately, this policy would further increase federal involvement in education and take decision making power away from state and local governments. The Heritage Foundation’s Lindsey Burke wrote of this,

Yes, school choice, digital learning, and charters are imperative to improving America’s education system. But the federal government should not be dictating what states must do in terms of education policy. Let’s not fall into the trap of becoming conservative technocrats — placing mandates on states to implement certain policies with which we agree. That’s the mistake some conservatives made with No Child Left Behind.

Romney’s views on education were more conservative when he was a U.S. Senate candidate in 1994 — back then he wanted to abolish the entire Department of Education. Now he wants to expand federal involvement in order to combat what he terms “one of the foremost civil rights challenges of our time: the achievement gap facing many minority groups.”

“No Child Left Behind helped our nation take a giant step forward in bridging [the] education gap,” he said when he unveiled A Chance for Every Child at the Latino Coalition’s Annual Economic Summit in Washington, D.C. last May. “As president, I will break the political logjam that has prevented successful reform of the law.”

Romney promised, “I will reduce federal micromanagement while redoubling efforts to ensure that schools are held responsible for results.” A Chance for Every Child states that a Romney administration would “Replace federally-mandated school interventions with a requirement that states create straightforward public report cards that evaluate each school on its contribution to student learning.”

Mrs. Burke commented,  “Reforming NCLB is not the answer.  . . . Nearly a half century after the Johnson-era law was first implemented (NCLB is the eighth reauthorization of 1965’s Elementary and Secondary Education Act), it has failed to improve academic outcomes and has left states with nothing more than reams of red tape.”

Instead of reworking failed legislation, Mrs. Burke argues, Romney should move forward with policies that conservatives have already drafted such as the APLUS Act: “APLUS would allow states to opt out and spend their share of federal education dollars on any lawful education purpose they believe would best benefit students. It’s one of the best ways Congress could restore constitutional governance in education: send dollars and decision-making back to state and local leaders who are closest to the student.”

Romney’s ambiguous positions on education reform are disappointing to conservatives, just as his apparent emphasis on school choice is disappointing to the liberals in the Obama administration who have relied on Romney-approved policies. As ABC News writer Matt Negrin commented in a May 24 article, “education is the one area where Romney and Obama could learn to work together.”

William H. Guenther, president of MassInsight, a nonpartisan research organization that advised Romney on K-12 issues during his time as governor, told Education Week that Romney is among “liberal and conservative education reformers” focused on a combination of “excellent goals and no excuses.” “Governor Romney’s education reform packages were ahead of their time,” he said. “Putting aside the lightning-rod issue of school choice, there’s a lot of common ground between the candidates.”

For conservatives there’s too much “common ground” between Romney and the Obama administration. For example, Romney is in favor of the problematic Common Core State Standards (CCSS), though he says he doesn’t approve of the way states were encouraged to adopt them. Oren Cass, Romney’s domestic policy director, said those policies “effectively are an attempt to manipulating states into” Common Core, Education Week reported. This mixed review is small comfort to conservatives who oppose CCSS on the grounds that the standards are intrusive, poorly written, and blatantly unconstitutional. The Common Core should be abolished, not reformed, and Romney has passed up an opportunity to help make that happen.

CCSS are an important part of the federal Race to the Top (RTTT) program; states that agreed to implement CCSS were given preferred status when applying for RTTT grant money. But rather than arguing against RTTT’s expansion of federal education funding, Romney merely says the program was poorly designed and needs improvement:

It awarded states money in return for promises, without regard for results. States merely had to offer ambitious plans for change to win funding, and now many of them are struggling to follow through. They have asked to amend their plans and extend their implementation deadlines, but the Department of Education has already sent the money out the door and now can only hope that change occurs.

Romney has also echoed President Obama’s policies by proposing the block-granting of teacher quality money. President Obama has made similar proposals in his budget requests, seeking to combine funding for federal teacher improvement programs.

Veterans of the Bush administration have questioned whether Romney’s reforms are adequate. Sandy Kress, the former Bush White House aide who worked with Ted Kennedy to craft No Child Left Behind, told Education Week he supports Romney’s presidential bid despite reservations about his education plan:

What would the expectations be for states and districts? What would the expectations be for the money in terms of the report cards and for the responsibility for learning? What will the expectations be for the rigor of the standards and the consequences? That’s unclear.

But Margaret Spellings, who also worked in the Bush White House and later became Secretary of Education, resigned in protest from Romney’s education advisory team because, she said, “I believe in a muscular federal role on school accountability.”

Liberal Huffington Post blogger Christopher Emdin argued in a June 4 posting that Romney’s plan was too similar to existing failed policies. “Romney’s ‘A Chance for Every Child’ is no different than Bush’s ‘No Child Left Behind,’” he wrote. “Both phrases tug at the heartstrings of the public, but the initiatives themselves are poorly constructed, laden with misconceptions about the nature of teaching and learning.”

Now there’s something on which both liberals and conservatives can agree!