Mitt Romney today released his plan to reform America’s ailing education system. It goes big on school choice and parental empowerment and calls for increased transparency of results. Along the way, it admonishes education unions — and rightly so — for standing in the way of reform.
Notably, Romney’s plan would expand D.C.’s embattled Opportunity Scholarship Program (OSP), which provides vouchers to low-income children in the nation’s capital. President Obama has been hostile toward the voucher program. Most recently he capped enrollment in OSP, after having agreed to its reauthorization just last year.
Romney’s instincts to expand school choice and the OSP are spot-on. Since D.C. education is under the jurisdiction of Congress, it’s entirely appropriate to call for expanding this voucher program.
Romney also proposes making federal education funding for low-income children and children with disabilities portable, effectively voucherizing Title I of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). This is a laudable goal, but to better reflect the tenets of federalism, he should amend the language to let states make Title I and IDEA funding portable.
In addition, 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.)
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.
School choice wasn’t the only major policy prescription in Romney’s plan. It also proposes to reform No Child Left Behind. It’s certainly good that Romney sees the pitfalls of NCLB; indeed, both sides of the aisle agree the law is broken. But reforming NCLB is not the answer. Instead, conservatives in Congress have been arguing for years that states should be allowed to opt out completely from NCLB. 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.
Moving forward, Romney’s agenda should include the conservative alternative to NCLB: the Academic Partnerships Lead Us to Success (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.
The Romney agenda hits the nail on the head in terms of the stranglehold special-interest groups — i.e., teachers’ unions — have on education. As Romney pointed out, the NEA alone contributes more to political campaigns than Goldman Sachs, Wal-Mart, and ExxonMobil combined.
Overall, the Romney plan is choice-driven and tilts heavily in favor of empowering parents. In contrast, President Obama’s “blueprint” for federal education would concentrate more control at the U.S. Department of Education and put the desires of special-interest groups ahead of the needs of families.
In the coming months, Romney should take the opportunity to refine his laudable program of expanding school choice so that it explicitly devolves more power to state and local education authorities. That kind of “tweaking” would produce an education agenda conservatives could embrace without hesitation.
— Lindsey Burke is the Will Skillman Fellow in Education at the Heritage Foundation (www.heritage.org).