(Editor’s note: This article is excerpted from “A Chance for Every Child: Mitt Romney’s Plan for Restoring the Promise of American Education.”)
The challenges we face are not new. Since A Nation at Risk was published almost thirty years ago, our country has understood the urgent need for reform. Yet today, fewer than 75 percent of freshmen graduate within four years of entering high school, and far too many who do graduate require remediation when they enroll in college. On the latest international PISA test, American high school students ranked 14th out of 34 developed countries in reading, 17th in science, and 25th in math. These results are unacceptable in their own right, and a sobering warning of a potential decline threatening our nation’s future.
Our K-12 system also poses one of the foremost civil rights challenges of our time: the achievement gap facing many minority groups. The average African American or Hispanic student performs at the same level in 12th grade that the average white student achieves in 8th grade. More than one in three African American and Hispanic students fails to graduate from high school within four years of entering. This unconscionable reality flows as a direct consequence from the poor quality of the schools that serve disproportionately minority communities in low-income areas. The tragic result is that instead of providing an escape from the cycle of poverty, our education system is reinforcing it.
Politicians have attempted to solve these problems with more spending. But while America’s spending per student is among the highest in the world, our results lag far behind. We spend nearly two-and-a-half times as much per pupil today, in real terms, as in 1970, but high school achievement and graduation rates have stagnated.
Tinkering around the edges and using money to fix the problem has proven fruitless. The recent infusion of stimulus funds has only served to delay the difficult budgetary decisions facing states, which now stand at the edge of a fiscal cliff. Providing more funding for the status quo will not deliver the results that our students deserve, our country needs, and our taxpayers expect. More than ever before, fiscal responsibility and resourcefulness are required to refocus investments and deliver results.
Unfortunately, rather than embracing reform and innovation, America remains gridlocked in an antiquated system controlled to a disturbing degree by the unions representing teachers. The teachers unions spend millions of dollars to influence the debate in favor of the entrenched interests of adults, not the students our system should serve. The efforts of teachers will be central to any successful reform, but their unions have a very different agenda: opposing innovation that might disrupt the status quo, while insulating even the least effective teachers from accountability. Sadly, these priorities do not correlate with better outcomes for our children. To the contrary, teachers unions are consistently on the front lines fighting against initiatives to attract and retain the best teachers, measure performance, provide accountability, or offer choices to parents.
Across the nation, glimmers of success offer reason for hope. Charter school networks such as the KIPP Academies, Uncommon Schools, and Aspire Public Schools are producing remarkable results with students in some of our nation’s most disadvantaged communities. Florida Virtual School and other digital education providers are using technology in new ways to personalize instruction to meet students’ needs. In our nation’s capital, the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program has achieved high school graduation rates above 90 percent in inner-city communities where barely half of public school students are earning their diplomas. These successes point the way toward genuine reform. They also underscore the broader struggles and show how far we have to go.
President Obama’s approach: Don’t mend it, just spend it
When talking about K-12 education, President Obama often emphasizes what he calls the investments he has made in the future. He touts the billions of dollars he has spent and details a list of supposed accomplishments that his administration has achieved. He is right about one thing: He has spent billions of dollars. However, the vast majority of these dollars have not been invested in implementing the types of reforms required to produce real results. Instead, these taxpayer dollars have aided the very teachers unions that worked to get him elected and that have held back for decades the reforms our system so desperately needs. President Obama is not investing in the future; he is spending money borrowed from the future on the past.
President Obama may understand the problems that plague our education system. He may even understand many of the policies needed to correct these problems. For instance, his administration touts “Race to the Top,” funded by more than $4 billion in stimulus funds and designed to encourage real reform. But Race to the Top represented less than five percent of the total stimulus spending on education, the rest of which went to states without concern for reforms and did no more than temporarily prop up a failing status quo.
Moreover, Race to the Top was itself poorly designed. It awarded states money in return for promises, without regard for results. States merely had to offer ambitious plans for change to win funding, and now many of them are struggling to follow through. Once again, President Obama’s excessive federal spending is failing to produce results. Instead, he has only managed to expand the number of federal programs and the amount of federal money spent.
A better plan: Supporting teachers, increasing choice, and emphasizing results
Ensuring that all children in the United States have access to a K-12 education that equips them to pursue their dreams is both a fundamental American value and essential for lasting economic prosperity. Sadly, we have long fallen short in this vital task, especially when it comes to the education of our most disadvantaged students. The cause is not a lack of public investment: As a nation we spend over $11,000 annually on each student enrolled in K-12 education, more than almost any other country. Nor can we assign blame to those leading our classrooms: American schools are filled with talented and passionate educators who know that the system desperately needs reform and want to be a part of a brighter future for our children. What we need is leadership from state and federal policy makers to free public education from a paralysis that keeps our schools and students from reaching their full potential.
To that end, we must dramatically expand parental choice over the education their children receive and unleash the power of innovation and technology to drive improvement. We must call on states to set high academic standards, hold schools and teachers responsible for results, and ensure that families and taxpayers have accurate information about school performance and spending. And we must reward effective teachers for their excellence in the classroom so that others like them will be attracted into the profession.
Promoting choice and innovation. Empowering parents with far greater choice over the school their child attends is a vital component of any national agenda for education reform. To start, low-income and special-needs children must be given the freedom to choose the right school and bring funding with them. These students must have access to attractive options, which will require support for the expansion of successful charter schools and for greater technology use by schools. And parents must have reliable, transparent, user-friendly information on how their own children and their schools are performing. Just as innovation and technology moved the nation into the Information Age, so too can they catapult our schools into the 21st century.
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. The choices offered to students under this policy will include any district or public charter school in the state, as well as private schools if permitted by state law. Eligible students remaining in public schools will also have the option to use federal funds to purchase supplemental tutoring or digital courses from state-approved private providers rather than receiving Title I services from their district. To ensure accountability, students using federal funds to attend private schools will be required to participate in the state’s testing system.
Ensuring high standards and responsibility for results. States must have in place standards to ensure that every high school graduate is prepared for college or work and, through annual testing, hold both students and educators accountable for meeting them. The results of this testing, for both their own children and their schools, must be readily available to parents in an easy-to-understand format. And both parents and taxpayers should have detailed and timely information on school and district spending to ensure accountability for the use of public funds.
A Romney Administration will work closely with Congress to strengthen NCLB by reducing federal micromanagement while redoubling efforts to provide transparency and accountability. The school interventions required by NCLB will be replaced by a requirement that states provide parents and other citizens far greater transparency about results. In particular, states will be required to provide report cards that evaluate schools and districts on an A through F or similar scale, based primarily on their contribution to achievement growth. These report cards will provide accurate and easy-to-understand information about student and school performance, as well as information about per-pupil spending in the local district.
States will continue to design their own standards and tests, but information on the state’s National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) performance will appear on the school and district report cards, and the grading system will be standardized so that states with poor NAEP performance cannot assign artificially high grades to their schools. States will also continue to disaggregate and report achievement levels by student subgroup for each subject, and within each school and district.
Recruiting and rewarding great teachers. A world-class education system requires world-class teachers in every classroom. Research confirms that students assigned to more effective teachers not only learn more, but they also are also less likely to have a child as a teenager and more likely to attend college. We must eliminate barriers to becoming a teacher that are based on credentials unrelated to classroom effectiveness. We must reward those teachers who contribute the most to student learning and provide them with advancement opportunities. And we must insist on contract provisions that allow for the removal of those educators who are unable to do the job effectively.
By emphasizing choice, accountability, and teacher quality, instead of simply throwing more money at challenges that have long since proven themselves unresponsive to increased spending, we can build an education system worthy of our next generation.