It's taken some time, but education has finally arrived front and center in the presidential campaign.
Presumptive Republican nominee Gov. Mitt Romney had been fairly quiet on education issues until recently, when he highlighted the major points of his education plan in an appearance before the Latino Coalition's Annual Economic Summit in Washington, D.C. At the same time, the plan was fully described in a white paper entitled: "A Chance for Every Child."
Romney vs. Obama
The highlight of the plan, and perhaps the biggest departure from President Obama (see the article Barack Obama on Education) and the current administration, is the proposal to redirect nearly $26 billion in federal Title 1 funding—which goes to poor students, as well as those with disabilities. Under the current system, the district receives the money based enrollment figures. But Romney would instead have the money follow the child. Parents could make the decision to use those federal dollars on a charter school, tutoring, online education or even a private school—if the particular state allowed that possibility.
The Romney campaign says Obama's education plan has largely consisted of sending billions of dollars to the states in an effort to keep the National Education Association—the country's largest teacher's union—a satisfied supporter.
"If you look at what the president has actually done, his entire agenda has essentially been to send federal money to the states," said Oren Cass, domestic policy director for the Romney campaign. "This is in keeping with an agenda of keeping the teachers unions happy, but it is not effective reform."
The Romney plan appears to be a clear step away from No Child Left Behind, the 10-year-old program first introduced by George W. Bush. NCLB required punitive action for any school district that could not meet accountability standards over a period of time. Romney's plan calls instead for "straightforward public report cards" offering parents "greater transparency" when it comes to school performance.
A Chance for Every Child
The Romney education plan also offers these additional proposals:
- Revamp accountability measures. While praising a number of aspects of NCLB, Gov. Romney says that the accountability and standards in NCLB must be reworked. Instead of the current system that only tells parents if their school meets the bare minimums in education, parents need more transparency. That would come in the form of report cards for each district, grading individual schools and the district and providing information on student performance as well as per-pupil spending and overall district performance.
- Attract and retain the best teachers. While NCLB tried to establish a certification that labeled the best teachers as "highly qualified," the Romney plan would use block grants and other rewards for states that put in place plans that reward good teachers and remove those who are ineffective. States will be encouraged to fairly evaluate their teachers on factors that do not only focus on tenure.
- Tie funding to education reform. The Romney plan points to President Obama's Race to the Top program as an example of a waste of federal dollars. While Gov. Romney is in favor of the goals of Race to the Top, such as rewarding teachers who are effective and coming up with innovative ways to turn around troubled schools, states received money based on creative proposals alone. Many states are struggling with implementing their ideas, but that wasn't taken into account.
The most significant difference between the two candidates in the area of education comes with Romney's introduction of increased school choice for poor and disadvantaged students, according to Chester E. Finn Jr., president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, an education policy group.
"To take that money to other public schools or in some states to private schools—or to charter or virtual schools—is hugely liberating," he said. "This changes the federal assumption. We go from funding schools to funding students. That's a big change."
Cass said the concept of choice puts parents in charge of their child's education, which is the way it should be.
"Gov. Romney always emphasizes that education starts at home and that having parents engaged in their children’s education is crucial to success," Cass said. "So the idea of offering more parental choice is one he is very committed to."
Cass also predicted that a system with more parental choice will be more transparent, with much more information available. "An important impact of choice is that it creates a lot of good information about what types of schools parents want to send kids to and what is working. And ultimately, it brings a lot of innovative ideas back in to communities whose schools might be struggling."