Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney has offered a program of education policy goals that calls for a smaller federal role in both K-12 and higher education, modifying but not eliminating No Child Left Behind, more school choice by tying funding for two of the largest federal education programs to individuals rather than to the schools they attend, and using the private sector as a provider of support and educational services for students.
These policy proposals will not dramatically overhaul the U.S. education system, but they are politically smart and attainable and could lead to small but still important improvements in education.
These proposals were presented in a 34-page “white paper” on education issued by the Romney campaign on May 23 in conjunction with his remarks to the Latino Coalition’s Annual Economic Summit in Washington, D.C. The timing, location, and details of these policy proposals make political sense.
They were released after the long primary campaign was effectively over, as education is not as important as other issues for Republican voters. In fact, a Pew Research Center for People and the Press survey released in April 2012 asked if voters thought an issue was very important, and only 35 percent of Romney voters considered education very important, placing it 17th out of 18 policy areas (beating only the environment).
While committed Republican voters aren’t as interested in education as other issues, swing voters are often interested in education.
Where Romney unveiled his education plan also is important. That it was offered to a group representing the Latino community in the United States makes sense, as Latinos are a key voting bloc and contain many swing voters concentrated in some key states, such as Florida, Colorado, Virginia, Nevada, and North Carolina.
The specifics of Romney’s education proposals are acceptable to a large portion of Republican voters but also are not so extreme as to have a high probability of turning off swing voters. For example, there’s no call to eliminate the U.S. Department of Education, which is something Romney advocated when he ran for Senate in Massachusetts in 1994.
It does not call for an end for federal involvement in education, as some in the Tea Party movement have called for. While the white paper speaks of educational choice, it does not call for federal tax credits or deductions for families whose dependents attend private schools or who are home schooled.
Romney’s educational proposals do not cater to the most conservative elements of the Republican Party. Regarding the education white paper, Redstate.com’s Shane Vander Hart wrote that the “principles of federalism are still being ignored, the school choice measures are anemic, and there is an overemphasis/reliance on standardized testing.” Vander Hart gave the Romney campaign’s plan a D.
The white paper, which begins with a foreword by former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, contains three parts. The first part speaks of the imperative of getting better results from education spending and calls education “one of the foremost civil rights challenges of our time.” It argues: “America remains gridlocked in an antiquated system controlled to a disturbing degree by unions representing teachers.”
The second part of the document critiques the Obama administration’s approach as being mostly about using the federal funds to bail out local school districts that, because of tough economic times, are laying off teachers. The white paper notes that Romney supports the goals of the Obama administration’s Race to the Top initiative but says the program was underfunded and poorly designed.
So what are Romney’s reform plans? With respect to K-12 education, the most significant reform advocated is to change Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which, since 1965, has provided funding for support programs for those who are disadvantaged, such as those whose with minimal family income or limited English proficiency.