Last month, Mitt Romney challenged both President Obama and the education establishment with a speech to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce that called for a broad policy overhaul. If adopted, Romney’s idea could overturn a quarter-century of efforts to concentrate more power and responsibility for education in the federal government. It also made clear the Republican presidential candidate favors school choice schemes in which federal dollars would follow students no matter what school they choose to attend even if it were not the local public school.
Not surprisingly, the education establishment isn’t happy about the prospect of such reforms and are started to push back as a New York Times article on the subject made clear today. But while the Times and other critics of his speech may have thought Romney would be embarrassed for being called out as opposing the educational approach embraced by President George W. Bush, they are wrong. Bush’s “No Child Left Behind” may have been a noble attempt to improve the quality of schools, but it is deeply unpopular and had the unfortunate effect of being a vehicle for more federal power at the expense of local control. Moreover, the usual chorus of criticism for Romney’s embrace of voucher-like school choice ideas underestimates the hunger for genuine educational reform that exists in the country. In education, Romney has found an issue that will help him breach the divide between the GOP and many constituencies that are desperately in need of the sort of national course correction he is prescribing.
The Times puts down Romney’s education ideas as a desperate attempt to create some distance between himself and President Obama that is complicated by the president’s support for some reform proposals like charter schools. His position is also described as somehow a derivative of Tea Party ideology — a pejorative in Timespeak — because it returns the GOP to a position of distrust for federal education power after Bush’s “No Child Left Behind” initiative.
But one needn’t be a Tea Party stalwart to understand how widely disliked the federal mandates created by Bush’s policies were in local school districts. Though the intent was to force improvement — a laudable goal — the imposition of an education philosophy that seemed at times solely focused on standardized tests is unpopular with both educators and parents. Though accountability is key to improving an often failing public system, Bush’s experiment seems to have proved that it cannot be accomplished by a top-down dictat coming from Washington.
Just as important, Romney’s willingness to cross a teachers union red line that, as the Times points out, Obama will not cross is no superficial difference. By seizing upon school choice as not just an education priority but also a civil rights issue, Romney is also putting Obama on the defensive.
The Times gives another airing to the tired chorus of choice critics, voiced by, among others, Bush Education Secretary Margaret Spellings. Spellings who quit as a Romney adviser after he made it clear he would support voucher plans, says the idea of creating accountability via the competition that would be created by choice is “untried and untested.” But that’s what school choice opponents have been saying for a generation as they fought every attempt to try voucher plans or to curtail or end voucher experiments.
To say that advocacy of choice is an attempt to impose right-wing ideology on the education system is looking at the issue through the wrong end of the telescope. To the contrary, it is the liberal ideological opposition to empowering parents to choose their children’s schools that is the barrier to overcome here.
Moreover, choice would give minority parents whose kids are often stuck in failed inner city schools the opportunity to give them the same opportunities President Obama’s children have. It should be remembered that despite his support for public schools, Sasha and Malia Obama go to the elite Sidwell Friends School, not a local D.C. institution. Nor should it be forgotten that President Obama bears the responsibility for killing a Washington school choice scheme (initiated under President Bush) that enabled poor kids to rub shoulders with the presidential children at Sidwell.
Far from going out on a limb with the Tea Party, Romney’s course correction from Bush’s diversion from traditional Republican ideas is both good politics and good policy.