Mitt Romney’s venture into education policy this week was overdue, but bold in the right places. It was a striking improvement from his previous blend of clichés about local control and hints that the Education Department might be eliminated altogether.
The conventional wisdom is that the Obama Administration has all but swept education reform off the table with its own maneuvering toward the center on the issue. The reality, though, is that the White House has mixed instances of toughness—incentivizing states to embrace charter schools, defending mass firings of teachers in underperforming Rhode Island districts—with a conventional Democratic resistance to merit based pay, vouchers, or any revamping of state tenure laws. It is a record that has won bipartisan plaudits from reformers, but not one that has made much headway in alleviating the festering mediocrity that marks many of our public schools, and that careens into outright disgrace in most inner city venues.
In fact, success under the Obama model would look remarkably similar to the landscape that prevails in education today: a scattering of high profile innovations in either deep pocketed big cities, or states that already have a strong reform culture, with the prospects of individual children turning largely on the vagaries of location and local leadership. Not surprisingly, the politically influential teachers unions have grumbled about the current agenda, but they have adjusted to it as an incremental set of half measures that they can fend off state by state.
Romney’s admittedly evolving proposals are potentially stronger stuff. The centerpiece, allowing kids in families below the poverty line to transfer to public or private schools outside their district, arguably steals a march on liberals by making access to higher quality education something resembling a federal entitlement (heretofore, it is liberals have described education as a “civil rights issue” without delineating exactly what that right consists of). As a variety of critics have quickly pointed out, competitive choice is no panacea: on one hand, it destabilizes the current national funding formula that ties levels of federal aid to the number of poor (or special needs kids) in a district, which makes it vulnerable to the charge that it penalizes already cash starved districts; on another hand, the ready availability of superior schools will vary from one community to another.
As to the first point, the manner in which federal education dollars are allocated remains more a sacred cow for education bureaucrats than a reliable basis for matching money with needs: the current method has notoriously shortchanged rural districts at the expense of large urban systems that are already generously funded at the state level, and that enjoy much larger local tax bases. Romney is right to reevaluate the status quo.
With respect to the argument that all choices won’t be created equally, its an imperfection of any market. But even an imperfect market will prod weaker school districts to make hard decisions about how their schools are managed and organized, lest their ranks become too depleted to stay open. The efforts to instill the same competition through the last education landmark, No Child Left Behind, have floundered because of the manipulability of the federal “report cards” issued to school districts, which led in many states to bad opening numbers followed by artificial gains in subsequent years. There is far less opportunity to game the system Romney envisions, which ultimately makes parental judgments the true test of a school’s achievement, as opposed to bureaucratic indexes.
To be sure, Democratic opponents of Romney’s plan will also hone in on the fact that it allows, without requiring, districts to permit transfers to private schools. It’s not the classic voucher plan some conservatives favor, in that it avoids directing federal tax dollars or credits to parents to enroll their kids in non-public schools, but it would constitute the first outright federal endorsement of vouchers. The distinction wouldn’t diminish liberal opposition, but the fight is one that Romney shouldn’t hesitate to wage: defending the right of low income families to have access to elite private schools is a case that consistently polls well with lower income Hispanics and upper-income Catholics, two swing groups in battlegrounds like Florida and Colorado.
The remainder of Romney’s agenda does arguably copy elements of Obama’s Race to the Top, with the important difference that a Romney Administration would more explicitly reward merit pay plans and performance based teacher evaluations at the expense of tenure. It’s still an improvement, and there is room for Romney to go further, by making merit pay and tenure overhaul requirements for extra federal dollars, rather than simply making them the basis for brownie points in a complex funding formula.
Mandating more drastic measures of teacher accountability, at least for districts that want more cash, is an intervention that not all conservatives would embrace. It is a fact of life that the local control mantra appeals to the base of the Republican Party that distrusts federal regulation even when it aligns against liberal special interests. But the reality is that both the Bush brand and the Obama brand of education reform have done more to alter the workloads of school administrators than they have done to make a fundamental impact on the children struggling to thrive in substandard schools. Romney’s opportunity is to first, put the power of the presidency behind a climate for innovation and stricter standards, and second, to trust parents rather than bureaucrats to be the arbiter of whether local reforms are working. It’s a smart approach for a candidate trying to offer more substance than just repealing Obama’s record.