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Romney’s Education Speech: More of the Same

    For those who hoped for a new vision for education which reversed the big government, top-down, test-and-punish regime of NCLB, they won’t find it in Mitt Romney’s education platform. Despite the obligatory brick-bats thrown at Barack Obama in his address to the Latino Economic Coalition, the educational pronouncements of the incumbent and the challenger are strikingly similar.

    Larded with comments about “saving children,” “crisis,” and “tragedy,” Romney simply and unoriginally embraced the status quo calling for a prescriptive, low order, drill-and-practice curriculum, along with excessive testing, privatizing public schools and punishing teachers.  There’s one fundamental problem with this approach:

    It doesn’t work.

    This set of reforms has been the dominant educational philosophy for the past twenty years -- and has yet to register a single sustained success across any urban district in the nation. It’s easy to understand why it doesn’t work. A child living in poverty with a single parent, a sketchy neighborhood, rotten teeth and bad nutrition is not going to be saved because the third grade teacher adopted Pearson Corporation’s latest national curriculum manual. Given one of the few impoverished children who actually reach escape velocity, the spiraling costs of higher education effectively slam the door on these children. While Mr. Romney robes his message in the “American Dream,” the paltry grant and scholarship programs he cites are tokenistic and do little to resolve the massive, fundamental and systematic under-funding of high-quality schools in our neediest neighborhoods. Instead of realizing dreams, he invokes illusions.

    In his speech, Romney extols former Florida Governor Jeb Bush’s educational successes in Florida. But he should be careful about cherry-picking his success examples. Mr. Bush held a celebration of the turn-around “success” in Florida at Miami Central high school, with President Obama in tow. This shining beacon of test-and-punish reform registered a miserable 16% passing rate in reading – which was actually a decline from the previous year’s less than stellar 21% pass rate. A similar decline was also registered in the math scores. Perhaps more embarrassing, the latest release of Florida’s National Assessment of Education Progress scores show the statewide scores actually “hit the wall.” The scores went down. A Bush spokesman said it must have been due to the housing bubble or some other “impossible to say” reason.

    Small government and less federal intervention resonates broadly with voters. Romney trotted out this bromide by promising to “reduce federal micromanagement.” Yet, in the same speech, he threatens to withhold federal funds from schools who fail to adopt his top-down, big government, federal mandates. What went unsaid is that the federal share of education funds is around 7% to 8% and is systemically declining as federal politicians cut domestic programs. Thus, Romney proposes a very small federal tail should wag a very large state and local dog. Since education is constitutionally a state and local matter, such federal insinuations raise questions about legality and appropriateness. 

    Romney also endorses various forms of school choice and privatization. While there are certainly successful charter schools, certain fundamental facts need consideration. First, on average, charter schools and private schools do not better or worse on standardized tests than public schools. Second, even if they worked at maximum effectiveness, they would not close the achievement gap. Third, and most importantly, they segregate society. In an economy that is becoming even more segregated by wealth, and simultaneously becoming more Black and Hispanic; government policies that encourage greater fragmentation and isolation is a myopic and dangerous social policy. A lumpy society where ever more isolated and fragmented segments hold little in common is not a promising recipe for the nation’s well-being.

    Unfortunately, Mr. Romney’s plans mirror President Obama’s in too many ways. (Staler than last month’s bread, Obama, Romney, George W. Bush and Clinton could mix up each other’s teleprompter notes and not miss a beat). While scientifically indefensible, both Romney and Obama would evaluate teachers by test scores, impose punishments on schools working in the most difficult environments, and both embrace privatizing a public good. In this election season, those wishing to hear a new, promising and uplifting vision on education will be disappointed.

    Romney is certainly correct in saying that it is “America’s minority children who suffer the most.” He is also on firm ground in saying that opportunities “shouldn’t be reserved for the fortunate few.” The great problem is that the policies he so sonorously espouses have exactly the opposite effect. We deserve a higher quality debate on education, one based on a grander vision of what we should be and can become.

William J. Mathis is Managing Director of the National Education Policy Center, a former school superintendent and a resident of Goshen Vermont. The views expressed are his own.

William J. Mathis

William J. Mathis is a Senior Policy Advisor to the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado Boulder and the former superintendent of school...