After pretty much wrapping up the GOP nomination Mitt Romney rolled out his education plan late last month. The topic has largely been ignored throughout the campaign (unless I was asking the question of Presidential candidates when they came through Iowa). Life has prevented me from reading his plan until now. I wanted to give it a look over and grade it.
While there are a number of items that are praiseworthy in Governor Romney’s plan I came away with the sense that Governor Romney likes to talk federalism, but it isn’t the principles in federalism that he puts into practice. Meaning, while President Obama through Race to the Top has worked to centralize education at the Federal level, Mitt Romney won’t do it quite as much.
Not terribly inspiring. Neither President Obama or Governor Romney seek to restrict the federal government to its constitutional role in education – which is nil. In Article I, Section 8, it lists the enumerated powers of Congress and education is not listed within those. The 10th Amendment then states, “the powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.”
The only conversation we should legitimately be having at the Federal level concerning education is how fast are we going to get the Feds out of it. Unfortunately we see quite the opposite from both parties.
So it is from that framework that I evaluate Governor Romney’s education white paper, “A Chance for Every Child.”
The paper started off on the wrong foot with a foreword written by former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, the national cheerleader for the Common Core State Standards. Governor Bush wrote:
There is no one “silver bullet” solution to our nation’s educational problems (agreed), but recent experience clearly indicates what needs to be done. We must provide families with abundant school choice, among both traditional public schools and charter and online alternatives. We must set high standards (read common core state standards) for student achievement, regularly assess students’ progress toward meeting those standards, and be honest in reporting the results.
Before going on I’d be remiss not to point out the testing fiasco happening in Florida with parents pushing back that is part of a growing national trend. But hey, he’s the *expert* who, as one Floridian put it, is using Florida as a petri dish and then shipping the product nationally. Bush continues…
What we do not need are prescriptive top-down mandates emanating from Washington, DC, which are so fashionable among many in the nation’s capital….
Like Race to the Top and the Common Core State Standards?
…America’s federal system of government allows for a more dynamic approach to reform, with states serving as laboratories of democracy in competition with one another to provide the best education possible to their children. The federal government must ensure that states embrace the basic principles of expanded school choice, high standards, and effective teaching while at the same time empowering them to carve their own paths toward excellence for all students.
Really? The Feds must do this? He must think, as it relates to education, that there is a “good idea” clause in the Constitution.
So that foreword set the theme of what I was to read next. Before I get to that I’d like to point out the good in this plan. For the purpose of this post I am focusing on his K-12 policy ideas.
His plan centers around providing greater parental choice in education, (pg. 3 & pgs. 23-24)
He acknowledges what isn’t needed is more money. We already spend on average $11,000 per student per year and are one of the global leaders in education spending. He cites research from the Center for American Progress that said, “most states showed ‘no clear relationship between spending and achievement,’” (pg. 8).
He also states that teachers unions are typically impediments to true reform. Bingo until this is addressed change will hardly occur within public schools. Until then we’ll keep shoving more money or as Romney accused Obama of doing – stop funding measures that unions are against, (pg. 15). For instance he recognizes that the practice of teacher tenure needs to be eliminated and/or reformed, (pg. 4 & 28) along with other measures.
He wants to expand the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship program and have it be a national model as a school choice measure, (pg. 3 & 25).
He wants to consolidate federal teacher quality programs that are far too numerous and overlapping. If the program isn’t being eliminated at the very least paring the programs down is a good start, (pg. 4 & 28)
He wants to eliminate unnecessary teacher certification requirements introduced by No Child Left Behind, (pg. 4 & 21).
Unfortunately Governor Romney’s plan, while containing some good elements, is a mixed bag in it’s proposed implementation.
Giving Lip Service to Federalism
Coupled with Bush’s forward; Romney explains his position on a federal role in education…
Achieving this vision will require a partnership between the states and the federal government. As Tennessee Senator and former U.S. Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander wisely notes, “there is a difference between a national concern, which education is, and a federal government solution driven by Washington.” Overly prescriptive federal policy mandates have a chilling effect on state and local efforts to improve by diverting resources toward compliance with the letter of the law, not its underlying intent. Federal fiscal requirements too often stifle local innovation and prevent spending on effective programs for fear of triggering federal audits, (pg. 22).
The problem with the paragraph is the phrase “overly prescriptive federal policy mandates” as if those mandates would be ok if they weren’t as prescriptive. He does hit some good notes regarding the consequences of federal involvement in education, but it goes south from there.
The federal government is uniquely positioned to provide financial support for the education of our neediest students and to require states and districts to tell the truth about how their schools and students are performing. Washington also has a critical role to play in enhancing competition among education providers by eliminating local education monopolies and supporting choice for parents and students. A Romney Administration will align federal funding and policies with the principles of expanded choice and innovation, high standards and accountability, and emphasis on recruiting and rewarding excellent teachers, (pg. 23 emphasis mine).
“Require states” is a phrase seen throughout this particular white paper. We see a commitment to centralization of education in his comments on Race to the Top.
Governor Romney has strongly supported many of Race to the Top’s goals, including the adoption of high quality standards and assessments; recruiting, retaining and rewarding effective teachers; and turning around low-performing schools. 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 many of them are struggling to follow through. They have asked to amend their plans and extend their implementation deadlines, but the Department of Education has already sent the money out the door and now can only hope that change occurs. 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.
Governor Romney on two different occasions has stated that he is against having national standards, but yet he states he is in favor of the goals of Race to the Top which foists the common core state standards onto cash strapped states. He then has a outspoken proponent of the common core state standards write the foreword to his white paper. What are we to believe. Based on his campaign’s own words here the only thing wrong with Race to the Top is that it didn’t target enough money for reform nor did it provide greater accountability.
This is a position of a person who supports federalism?
Weak School Choice Measures
While I mentioned his focus on parental choice in education is praiseworthy the plan for implementation is problematic. Some problems I see with his plan in this area are:
It is too narrow with its student target group. Currently his plan seeks to only serve youth who receive Title I and IDEA funds, (pg. 3 & 23). There are many families who do not qualify for these funds and yet still can’t afford other options. This wouldn’t reach as many people. School choice should be available for all families, not just the underprivileged. This underscores the assumption that suburban schools are meccas of educational excellence which is not the case compared to private schools and homeschoolers.
Even though this would be a better mandate, it is a mandate just the same. “States accepting Title I and IDEA funds (which is all of them) will be required to take a series of steps to encourage the development of quality options.” Among those options are open-enrollment policies, increase access to online education, and to expand charter schools. One has to wonder if this would be done in the same way the common core state standards were implemented – by bypassing state legislatures.
It is too narrow in the school choice options it lauds. Private education is barely mentioned and homeschooling is completely neglected in school choice options. Why in the world would you leave out the two options that have proven results? They cite the graduation results of students who took advantage of the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship, (pg. 9). Those are private schools, not charter or online schools, helping kids toward success. Homeschooling has also been shown to do an excellent job preparing young people for college.
They bypass federalism except where private schools are concerned. “This plan will allow the student to choose from any district or charter school public school, or a private school where permitted by state law, or to use funds toward a tutoring provider or digital course,” (pg. 3). They’re aren’t concerned about state law where charter schools or open enrollment is concerned, why start with private schools? I find this position to be a contradictory one at best, biased against private schools at worst.
Sean Cavanagh at EdWeek noted another potential controversial measure within Romney’s school choice plan. Those taking federal funds (whether it is D.C. Opportunity Scholarships, Title I or IDEA funds) are required to take state tests, (pg. 24). Which are based off of state standards that have been aligned with the national common core. Do you see a problem with this? I do. It infringes on the rights of private schools. They are successful largely because they’re private and have their own standards and curriculum. So either they align their standards with the state or they create two sets of standards one for federally funded kids and one for those who aren’t – like that would be workable. More than likely these schools will be required to adopt standards based on federal funds even though they will in most cases be mostly privately funded. If a private school already has a good track record of graduation and college placement why in the world does the Romney campaign feel that they need government oversight?
Again an emphasis on school choice is an improvement, but if you want to expand choice for parents at the federal level do it with tax credits or tax deductions that can be applied to a whole host of options – including private schools and homeschooling.
Overemphasis on Standardized Testing
While Mitt Romney deems No Child Left Behind as “overly prescriptive in telling states and districts how to manage schools identified as need improvement,” (pg. 26) he wants to continue with its testing based on standards component. Most of us have grown up with standardized tests. Can somebody show me where this has improved the state of education… anywhere? Testing can point out problems, to be sure. Overtesting causes problems as we have seen in Romney’s education go-to guy, Jeb Bush’s home state.
High-stakes testing leads to teaching to the test. High-stakes testing accountability whether it is state director or federally prescribed doesn’t take into consideration other factors that may lead to school failure. It certainly doesn’t lead to a well rounded education or consider some kids are just horrible test takers.
Then there is the problem of basing tests on general standards as Bob Sikes points out:
It is wide-ranging generalizations as these which Beacon created test questions with. Small wonder a detached test generator in another location created a Biology question on a Chemistry test. But rigid devotion connecting benchmarks and standards to the creation of multiple choice questions is currently the epicenter of the nation’s education apparatus.
How bad is it? Some standards-based education devotees are dismissing teacher’s concerns over this clear disconnect with a simplistic, “if you’re teaching the standards, the kids will be prepared for the tests.” A Bay county school board member said yesterday that “teachers need to pull apart those standards” and they may have to “take measures such as not using the book and finding other resources.”
This also points out how standards can drive curriculum (or circumvent it) which leads to the state dictating curriculum to local school districts – all driven by the Federal government’s requirement for accountability based on standardized testing.
While there are some encouraging aspects to Governor Romney’s plan and I can point to specific improvements over what we currently see in the Obama administration. The complaint that Obama has expanded federal education bureaucracy, (pg. 13) is countered with slightly less federal bureaucracy. Given that the principles of federalism are still being ignored, the school choice measures are anemic and there is an over emphasis/reliance on standardized testing I have to give Governor Romney’s K-12 plan a D. His position on teachers unions, reducing the amount of federal regulations with teacher certification, consolidating teach quality programs from NCLB, and focusing on choice spared this plan from receiving a failing grade. Governor Romney’s involvement with the common core state standards is uncertain based on his ties with its supporters and his emphasis on standards. I do hope we see a Romney administration back away from promoting the common core, but at this point I see little that would make me optimistic.
You can read Governor Romney’s education plan below:
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