Romney calls for smaller federal role in education

Currently, federal funds under Title I (about $25 billion in the current fiscal year) typically flow to schools based on the number of disadvantaged pupils in that school or district. A similar change is advocated with respect to the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act (IDEA), an act passed in 1990 but which built upon earlier legislation to help students with disabilities. A large portion of federal spending on education is related to these two portions of federal law.

IDEA, like Title I, generally directs money to schools providing services, but, according to the white paper, a “Romney administration will work with Congress to overhaul Title I and IDEA so that low-income and special-needs students can choose which school to attend and bring their funding with them.” In a few states, such as Louisiana, students could take Title I dollars to a private school; most students will take those dollars to other public schools.

To provide for greater choices for parents and students, Romney proposes that states will be required to have open enrollment in public school districts so that if a neighboring district to where a child lives has capacity, that district would have to accept the student. This is inter-district public school choice.

There was a provision for inter-district choice in NCLB but very few students—perhaps only 2 percent of those eligible—take advantage of the provision. If there were greater inter-district choice, public choice districts would be competing for more students and would seek to offer a better opportunity to students and parents as a means of attracting more students.

In addition to having open enrollment policies as a condition for a state receiving Title I funds, states would be required to remove caps on the number of charter schools in their state and have a funding mechanism for charters that would be commensurate with other public schools. Charter schools are public schools of choice, and a Romney administration wants to encourage more such schools. Some states allow many charter schools (Arizona), while others permit relatively few (Virginia) or none (Alabama). Charter schools have certainly been far from perfect.

While some charter schools have performed quite well and many have had success with difficult student groups, other charter schools have been failures. The Romney white paper does not include a means of addressing underperforming charter schools; it leaves it to states to monitor such schools and parents who can choose to leave a bad charter school.

Continuing with the theme of choice, a Romney administration will seek to fund the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program (DCOSP). The white paper cites the U.S. Department of Education evaluation of the DCOSP as noting that students who received the scholarship graduated at a higher rate.

The white paper does not cite the passage of the same report that states there was no conclusive evidence of increased student achievement. Still, getting students to graduate should be considered an achievement in itself, and the DCOSP can educate students for less money than does the D.C. school district.

There are many more parts to the Romney education package. Interestingly, it briefly defends NCLB, a law much criticized during the Republican presidential primary, and takes an approach that could be characterized as “mend it, don’t end it.”

The reforms in NCLB sought by a Romney administration would eliminate federal prescriptions regarding poor-performing schools and in their place would require states to provide clear information about the performance of schools to states. This transparency about school performance could empower parents as they engage with their local school district and make better choices for their child.

With respect to NCLB, a Romney administration also would eliminate the “highly qualified” requirement for teachers and provide grants to states and districts that connect performance with compensation, simplify the certification process for teachers, and end employment rules that benefit teachers with seniority over teachers with stronger performances.

Policies such a “last in, first out” approach to layoffs are common and desirable for teachers unions, but they can handcuff local school districts when hard financial times hit—making it hard to keep some younger and strong performing teachers.

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