Romney calls for smaller federal role in education

Thirty-five percent of Romney voters considered education very important.

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney has offered a program of education policy goals that calls for a smaller federal role in both K-12 and higher education, modifying but not eliminating No Child Left Behind, more school choice by tying funding for two of the largest federal education programs to individuals rather than to the schools they attend, and using the private sector as a provider of support and educational services for students.

These policy proposals will not dramatically overhaul the U.S. education system, but they are politically smart and attainable and could lead to small but still important improvements in education.

These proposals were presented in a 34-page “white paper” on education issued by the Romney campaign on May 23 in conjunction with his remarks to the Latino Coalition’s Annual Economic Summit in Washington, D.C. The timing, location, and details of these policy proposals make political sense.

They were released after the long primary campaign was effectively over, as education is not as important as other issues for Republican voters. In fact, a Pew Research Center for People and the Press survey released in April 2012 asked if voters thought an issue was very important, and only 35 percent of Romney voters considered education very important, placing it 17th out of 18 policy areas (beating only the environment).

While committed Republican voters aren’t as interested in education as other issues, swing voters are often interested in education.

Where Romney unveiled his education plan also is important. That it was offered to a group representing the Latino community in the United States makes sense, as Latinos are a key voting bloc and contain many swing voters concentrated in some key states, such as Florida, Colorado, Virginia, Nevada, and North Carolina.

The specifics of Romney’s education proposals are acceptable to a large portion of Republican voters but also are not so extreme as to have a high probability of turning off swing voters. For example, there’s no call to eliminate the U.S. Department of Education, which is something Romney advocated when he ran for Senate in Massachusetts in 1994.

It does not call for an end for federal involvement in education, as some in the Tea Party movement have called for. While the white paper speaks of educational choice, it does not call for federal tax credits or deductions for families whose dependents attend private schools or who are home schooled.

Romney’s educational proposals do not cater to the most conservative elements of the Republican Party. Regarding the education white paper,’s Shane Vander Hart wrote that the “principles of federalism are still being ignored, the school choice measures are anemic, and there is an overemphasis/reliance on standardized testing.” Vander Hart gave the Romney campaign’s plan a D.

The white paper, which begins with a foreword by former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, contains three parts. The first part speaks of the imperative of getting better results from education spending and calls education “one of the foremost civil rights challenges of our time.” It argues: “America remains gridlocked in an antiquated system controlled to a disturbing degree by unions representing teachers.”

The second part of the document critiques the Obama administration’s approach as being mostly about using the federal funds to bail out local school districts that, because of tough economic times, are laying off teachers. The white paper notes that Romney supports the goals of the Obama administration’s Race to the Top initiative but says the program was underfunded and poorly designed.

So what are Romney’s reform plans? With respect to K-12 education, the most significant reform advocated is to change Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which, since 1965, has provided funding for support programs for those who are disadvantaged, such as those whose with minimal family income or limited English proficiency.

Currently, federal funds under Title I (about $25 billion in the current fiscal year) typically flow to schools based on the number of disadvantaged pupils in that school or district. A similar change is advocated with respect to the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act (IDEA), an act passed in 1990 but which built upon earlier legislation to help students with disabilities. A large portion of federal spending on education is related to these two portions of federal law.

IDEA, like Title I, generally directs money to schools providing services, but, according to the white paper, a “Romney administration will work with Congress to overhaul Title I and IDEA so that low-income and special-needs students can choose which school to attend and bring their funding with them.” In a few states, such as Louisiana, students could take Title I dollars to a private school; most students will take those dollars to other public schools.

To provide for greater choices for parents and students, Romney proposes that states will be required to have open enrollment in public school districts so that if a neighboring district to where a child lives has capacity, that district would have to accept the student. This is inter-district public school choice.

There was a provision for inter-district choice in NCLB but very few students—perhaps only 2 percent of those eligible—take advantage of the provision. If there were greater inter-district choice, public choice districts would be competing for more students and would seek to offer a better opportunity to students and parents as a means of attracting more students.

In addition to having open enrollment policies as a condition for a state receiving Title I funds, states would be required to remove caps on the number of charter schools in their state and have a funding mechanism for charters that would be commensurate with other public schools.  Charter schools are public schools of choice, and a Romney administration wants to encourage more such schools. Some states allow many charter schools (Arizona), while others permit relatively few (Virginia) or none (Alabama). Charter schools have certainly been far from perfect.

While some charter schools have performed quite well and many have had success with difficult student groups, other charter schools have been failures. The Romney white paper does not include a means of addressing underperforming charter schools; it leaves it to states to monitor such schools and parents who can choose to leave a bad charter school.

Continuing with the theme of choice, a Romney administration will seek to fund the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program (DCOSP). The white paper cites the U.S. Department of Education evaluation of the DCOSP as noting that students who received the scholarship graduated at a higher rate.

The white paper does not cite the passage of the same report that states there was no conclusive evidence of increased student achievement. Still, getting students to graduate should be considered an achievement in itself, and the DCOSP can educate students for less money than does the D.C. school district.

There are many more parts to the Romney education package. Interestingly, it briefly defends NCLB, a law much criticized during the Republican presidential primary, and takes an approach that could be characterized as “mend it, don’t end it.”

The reforms in NCLB sought by a Romney administration would eliminate federal prescriptions regarding poor-performing schools and in their place would require states to provide clear information about the performance of schools to states. This transparency about school performance could empower parents as they engage with their local school district and make better choices for their child.

With respect to NCLB, a Romney administration also would eliminate the “highly qualified” requirement for teachers and provide grants to states and districts that connect performance with compensation, simplify the certification process for teachers, and end employment rules that benefit teachers with seniority over teachers with stronger performances.

Policies such a “last in, first out” approach to layoffs are common and desirable for teachers unions, but they can handcuff local school districts when hard financial times hit—making it hard to keep some younger and strong performing teachers.

Romney’s white paper says he also would seek to simplify and consolidate federal student aid programs. Governmental programs typically grow in complexity over time, and with the concern about access to higher education and its cost, a Romney administration might just have the opportunity to simplify federal student aid programs.

Similar to the transparency regarding the performance of K-12 schools, a Romney administration wants consumers of higher education to understand better what they are getting from a school.  The white paper states that “better information about products and services helps consumers make more informed choices.” Obviously, the devil is in details regarding what information colleges will be required to release and how that information will be made available—but at the level of broad policy goal, more information is both desirable and useful.

A Romney administration would invite the private sector to be more involved in the financing and delivery of education, such as having the private sector be more involved in the student loan program, and not enacting regulations and removing old ones that have hindered some private-sector education providers.

In addition to all these particular proposals, one additional item that was not proposed should be noted. The education white paper does not propose any significant increases in education spending.

The size of our recent budget deficits and the anger expressed by many Republicans over increased education spending during the Bush administration preclude any discussion of significant increases in education. It’s not politically possible. Besides, as the white paper notes in several places, more spending does not directly lead to increased performance.

These policy proposals, even enacted to the total preference of a possible Romney administration, will not correct all the problems facing the education of U.S. residents.   Moreover, the system is too big and the problem is so multifaceted and complex that education will never be “fixed.”

Romney is certainly not aiming for something as ambitious as President Bush’s NCLB. Even these modest proposals offered by Romney will need great prudence in design and implementation, and even well-intentioned programs can have unintended consequences.

Nevertheless, these proposals are worthy of serious consideration, and it seems, on balance, they can lead to an overall improvement in our educational system, thus enabling more engaged and productive citizens—and that’s a goal we all can agree upon.

Michael Coulter, Ph.D., is a professor of political science at Grove City College in Grove City, Pa.