Two Contrasting Takes on Mitt Romney’s Education Proposal

Rick Hess describes Romney’s education agenda as mostly encouraging, but with considerable room for improvement:

The plan isn’t as thoughtful as Romney will need to be about what the federal government does and doesn’t do well in education, settling instead for vague paeans to choice and “innovation.” Romney needs to argue that the feds can make state and localities do things but they can’t make them do those things well–and that everything that matters in schooling is in the execution, rather than the mere doing (for more, see my recent book with Andrew Kelly, Carrots, Sticks, and the Bully Pulpit). There was also much less than I’d have hoped on the specifics of addressing the headaches that overcaffeinated federal rule-making have created over time.

Especially in K-12 schooling, where 90% of the money is provided by states or localities, it can be tough for conservatives to talk about addressing our educational challenges without seeming to imply that every idea requires new federal funds or programs. Romney’s plan is far less explicit on this score than he’ll need to be. This is doubly true given that some of his talking points, such as his promise to drive down college tuition, imply grand new vistas of presidential authority. And Romney’s proposal to require states to lift charter caps, embrace open-enrollment, and adopt expansive approaches to virtual schooling in order to qualify for federal aid is practically Obamaesque as far as expanding the federal reach when it comes to state education policy.

My sense — and I’m open to being convinced otherwise — is that using federal leverage to lift chart caps and to adopt expansive approaches to virtual schooling is an appropriate anti-competitive measure, particularly since many of the emerging blended learning options are going to be inter-state and perhaps even international in nature, i.e., students in Pennsylvania may well learn from teachers in Oklahoma, etc. 

Kevin Carey offers a stinging criticism, though I imagine Hess would share many of Carey’s objections and concerns. Carey rightly notes that the Romney plan mischaracterizes the nature of the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, but he doesn’t acknowledge that its awkward structure in part reflects political resistance to a more ambitious approach. Carey argues that federal Title I and IDEA spending isn’t high enough to create a robust marketplace of supplementary educational services, which is also likely to be true. Indeed, this is a reason to contemplate increased funding for Summer Opportunity Scholarships (see here), though this effort would run counter to the desire for spending restraint. 

Like Hess, Carey observes that Romney’s efforts to use federal leverage to encourage choice is very much a top-down strategy. Moreover, Romney champions inter-district choice, which Carey describes as follows:

Inter-district open enrollment is a liberal policy idea promoted by organizations like the Century Foundation and the Citizen’s Commission on Civil Rights as a way of giving poor and minority urban students access to schools in wealthy white suburbs. As a rule, it is fiercely opposed by the (mostly-Republican) citizens of those suburbs, for obvious reasons.

This is decidedly imprecise: when we consider the suburbs of, say, the ten largest metropolitan areas in the U.S., it seems at least equally likely that the citizens in question are Democrats. What unites these citizens is that they are, to use William Fischel’s evocative term, “homevoters.” We’ll revisit Fischel’s hypothesis in our next post. Briefly, I’ll say that Carey shouldn’t assume that the “obvious reasons” homeowners in white and non-white parents in middle-income (not just wealthy) suburbs resist inter-district open enrollment are “obvious reasons” he has in mind. 

Telling states and local school districts whom they have to enroll and how they have to spend their money is the essence of intrusive federal education policy, far more so than NCLB mandates that give states broad discretion to set academic standards and don’t touch school district boundaries. (Also, some bureaucratic arm of the federal government would have to enforce these new regulations, which is perhaps why Romney’s previous promises to radically downsize the U.S. Department of Education were yesterday nowhere to be found.)

This is clearly true with regards to inter-district open enrollment, which represents serious overreach on the part of Team Romney. This is very different from pressing steps to lift caps. 

It is, moreover, easy for people who live in cities to forget that large numbers of American schoolchildren live in suburban, town, and rural areas that will never be served by a private, charter, or any physical school other than the local public one. Online education can be a good option for some students in some circumstances. But a fourth grader struggling to read and learn math in a mediocre rural public school needs someone looking out for her interests. NCLB tries, imperfectly but with real intention, to prod the only school she will ever have to get better. Romney’s plan leaves her at the mercy of what her local school chooses to provide.

That is, it leaves her at the mercy of the state and local governments that have taken the leading role in education for some time now, with the important exception that state and local governments will be strongly encouraged to permit digital learning options. This is surprisingly polemical language to condemn a policy that could be described as merely recognizing the limits of federal accountability.  

All that said, Hess and Carey raise a number of important issues and concerns.

Reihan Salam — Reihan Salam is executive editor of National Review and a National Review Institute policy fellow.

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