Mitt Romney on Federal Education Policy

by Reihan Salam

Earlier today, Mitt Romney offered thoughts on education reform. I was impressed by some aspects of it, e.g., his rhetorical frame:

Our public education system is supposed to ensure that every child gets a strong start in life. Yet, one in four students fails to attain a high school degree. And in our major cities, half of our kids won’t graduate. Imagine that.

Imagine if your enterprise had a 25% to 50% failure rate in meeting its primary goal. You would consider that a crisis. You would make changes, and fast. Because if you didn’t, you’d go out of business.

But America’s public education establishment shows no sense of urgency. Instead, there is a fierce determination to keep things the way they are.

Romney is presumably referring to traditional public education providers who are comfortable with existing arrangement and are thus reluctant to embrace specialized instructional providers and disruptive change to school governance and the terms of employment.

But how exactly does Romney intend to challenge entrenched providers?

As President, I will give the parents of every low-income and special needs student the chance to choose where their child goes to school. For the first time in history, federal education funds will be linked to a student, so that parents can send their child to any public or charter school, or to a private school, where permitted. And I will make that choice meaningful by ensuring there are sufficient options to exercise it.

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.

Romney is proposing to build a strong bias towards choice in federal education policy. A number of states, for example, impose caps on charter schools, including virtual charters. Some critics of Romney’s approach have suggested that capacity constraints might make his proposal unrealistic — yet capacity constraints needn’t apply to virtual charters. At present, however, there have been efforts in a number of states and districts to cap enrollment in virtual charters, as John Chubb and Terry Moe have observed:

Unions will resist technology. Their mission is to protect the jobs of teachers in the regular public schools, and real technological change—which outsources work to distant locations, allows students and money to leave, substitutes capital for labor, and in other ways disrupts the existing job structure—is a threat to the security and stability that the unions seek. For decades, the unions and their allies have been the major obstacles to education reform, regularly using their formidable political power to block or weaken the reforms they do not like, from accountability to school choice to pay for performance. No surprise, then, that they are already working to kill or limit virtual charters, and to ensure that technology fits neatly into the status quo.

But this time they won’t succeed. Technology has a far-reaching capacity to transform politics. As distance learning proliferates, for example, teachers will be less geographically concentrated in districts, considerably more dispersed, and much more difficult for unions to organize. The substitution of technology for labor will lower the demand for teachers. The teaching profession will become much more diversified and less conducive to sameness and solidarity. There will be many new schools and a dramatic increase in choice and competition. All these developments, operating together in mutually reinforcing ways, will work to sap the organizational strength of the teachers unions, undermine their political power, and weaken their ability to block in the policy process. As they are less and less able to block them, reforms of all kinds—not just those that are high tech—will begin to flow through. [Emphasis added]

Romney’s speech demonstrates that he intends to facilitate this process by making the federal government an ally of the technology-enabled transformation of K-12 education. (It is no coincidence that Romney is close to Clayton Christensen, co-author of Disrupting Class.)

Romney also calls for improving the quality of the information available to parents without imposing onerous, detailed requirements on schools. The goal is to encourage large-scale, structural reforms and to then allow ground-level innovation to take hold. This passage of the speech, in which Romney calls for public report cards in lieu of “cryptic evaluation systems,” reminded me of a recent op-ed by Rick Hess of AEI (from the center-right) and Linda Darling-Hammong of Stanford (from the center-left) on what federal education policy can realistically accomplish:

For all its flaws, No Child Left Behind’s main contribution is that it pushed states to measure and report achievement for all students annually. Without transparency, it’s tough for parents, voters and taxpayers to hold schools and public officials accountable. However, No Child Left Behind also let states use statistical gimmicks to report performance. Instead of the vague mandate of “adequate yearly progress,” federal financing should be conditioned on truth in advertising — on reliably describing achievement (or lack thereof) and spending. To track achievement, states should be required to link their assessments to the National Assessment of Educational Progress (or to adopt a similar multistate assessment). To shed light on equity and cost-effectiveness, states should be required to report school- and district-level spending; the resources students receive should be disclosed, not only their achievement.

This seems like an excellent place to start. 

One potential criticism of Romney’s education agenda is that his call for using the carrot of federal funding to encourage structural reform, like lifting charter caps and giving students greater flexibility regarding where they might enroll in school, is far too ambitious. Resistance to interdistrict choice is likely to be very tenacious, for the obvious and understandable reason that homeowners have made substantial investments in the quality of local schools and might be reluctant to open access to the children of parents who are not embedded in their neighborhoods and towns. Like Hess, I’m reluctant to moralistically condemn these parents, and not just because I think doing so is a political dead end. Yet virtual charters and other forms of blended learning have changed this dynamic for the better, by giving large numbers of students options beyond interdistrict choice. 

It is also worth recalling the flaws in President Obama’s Race to the Top initiative, perhaps the most obvious of which is the emphasis that it placed on “buy-in” (more) from teachers’ unions. That is, states in which teachers’ unions embraced statewide reform plans were given more favorable consideration than those in which teachers’ unions resisted. At the very least, we can expect “buy-in” to become a somewhat lower priority and choice-based structural reform, in which parents will be able to use exit as a tool to discipline low-performing schools, to become a higher priority. 

I would, however, encourage Team Romney to consider other innovative ideas, like the Krueger-Fifer call for Summer Opportunity Scholarships. Krueger, of course, is a senior advisor to President Obama. 

All in all, a solid start.