Romney tiptoes around vouchers
“Voucher” is a fighting word in education, so it may be understandable that when Mitt Romney speaks about improving the nation’s schools, he never uses that term.
Nonetheless, as president, Romney would seek to overhaul the federal government’s largest programs for kindergarten through 12th grade into a voucherlike system, he said recently.
Students would be free to use $25 billion in federal money to attend any school they choose - public, charter, online or private - a system, he said, that would introduce marketplace dynamics into education to spur academic gains.
His plans, presented in a speech at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, represent a broad overhaul of current policy, one that reverses a quarter-century trend, under Republican and Democratic presidents, of concentrating responsibility for school quality at the federal level.
“I will expand parental choice in an unprecedented way,” Romney said, adding that families’ freedom to vote with their feet “will hold schools responsible for results.”
His proposals are the clearest sign yet that Republicans have executed an about-face from the education policies of George W. Bush, whose signature domestic initiative, the No Child Left Behind law of 2002, required uniform state testing and imposed penalties on schools that failed to progress.
Now Romney is taking his party back to its ideological roots by emphasizing a lesser role for Washington, replacing top-down mandates with a belief in market mechanisms. It is a change driven in part by tea party disdain of the federal government. In the Republican presidential nominating fight, candidates competed in calling to shut the Education Department.
Romney, who never went that far, also seems hemmed in politically by the fact that President Barack Obama promotes many solutions that were once Republican talking points – such as charter schools and teacher evaluations tied to test scores.
“There’s not much left for Republicans to be distinctive about,” said Chester E. Finn Jr., president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, an education policy group. “The one line the Obama folks have refused to cross is the voucher line” - that is, allowing students to use taxpayer money to attend any certified school, even a private school.
Specifically, Romney proposed to change federal payments made to schools with large numbers of poor and disabled students into an individual entitlement. Students would take a share of the $25 billion in two federal programs to the school of their choice.
He would also extract the federal government from intervening to turn around the lowest performing schools, which has been a chief focus of the Obama administration. Instead, to drive improvement, Romney would have schools compete for students in a more market-based approach to quality.
But there is limited evidence in the real world of schools improving much as they compete for students, according to education experts.
One notable skeptic is Margaret Spellings, a former education secretary under Bush, who this year was an informal adviser to Romney. She said she withdrew once the candidate rejected strong federal accountability measures.
“I have long supported and defended and believe in a muscular federal role on school accountability,” Spellings said. “Vouchers and choice as the drivers of accountability - obviously that’s untried and untested.”
Romney’s policy seems closely inspired by a pro-voucher report issued in February by the conservative Hoover Institution.