May 23, 2012
By TRIP GABRIEL
Lamenting that millions of American children receive “a third world education,” Mitt Romney on Wednesday called for poor and disabled students to be able to use federal funds to attend any public, private or online school they choose.
In an already feverish campaign contest with President Obama that has focused largely on the economy, Mr. Romney, the presumed Republican nominee, turned his attention to the issue of education.
It might have seemed an unlikely choice, given how insignificantly education has figured in recent presidential elections. But the campaign has long planned to flesh out Mr. Romney’s agenda and move beyond daily tit-for-tat criticism of the president.
Mr. Romney’s sudden emphasis on education is reminiscent of George W. Bush’s forceful embrace of the same issue in 2000, a pillar of his “compassionate conservatism” that was credited with softening his image with moderate voters in the general election.
Another hint of Mr. Romney’s political aims was his audience: a meeting in Washington of Hispanic voters, a constituency that polls consistently show cares deeply about education, and one that Mr. Romney must court as he tries to win critical states like Florida and Colorado.
Mr. Romney said that the failure of so many American schools with minority students “is the civil rights issue of our era,” echoing a mantra of the school choice movement. “It’s the great challenge of our time.”
The challenge for Mr. Romney is that many of the ideas he touched on — increasing the number of charter schools, holding teachers more accountable for student success — have already been adopted by the Obama administration, whose education policies have all but co-opted traditional Republican positions.
In response to Mr. Romney’s proposals, the Obama campaign released a compilation of Republican governors’ past praise for the president’s education policies, including comments from Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey and Gov. Susana Martinez of New Mexico.
Mr. Romney told donors at a private gathering in Florida last month that he would reduce the size of the Education Department or fold it into another agency. But on Wednesday he gave no hint of the cuts he would make to education spending. He said he would consolidate $4 billion in current expenditures on teacher quality across 10 federal agencies, and send the money to states as block grants.
He also promised to break logjams that still hold up reforms by taking on teachers’ unions, which he called “the clearest example of a group that has lost its way.” He accused Mr. Obama of quavering before the unions because of their power within the Democratic Party. “President Obama has been unable to stand up to union bosses — and unwilling to stand up for our kids,” he said.
In fact, Mr. Obama has crossed teachers’ unions, notably in 2010 when he praised a mass firing of teachers in Rhode Island in a showdown over an administration policy to radically overhaul failing high-poverty schools.
In a policy paper released on Wednesday, the Romney campaign called for the elimination of such federal intervention.
James Kvaal, policy director for Mr. Obama’s campaign, accused Mr. Romney of wanting “to stop the clock on decades of reform by no longer insisting action be taken” to reform struggling schools.
In place of overhauling failing schools, which can include replacement of the staff or conversion to a charter school, Mr. Romney would substitute a “public report card,” one exposing a school’s failures so that parents, presumably, could steer clear. It is uncertain how that proposal differs from existing report cards now required under the No Child Left Behind law enacted under President Bush.
Mr. Romney’s biggest departure from existing policy was his call for poor students and those with disabilities to be able to attend any public school in their state — “or a private school where permitted by law” — and to have federal funds follow them, rather than the current system in which the money stays with a student’s local school.
The inclusion of private schools suggested that Mr. Romney favors voucher programs that use public dollars to pay private tuition, long a controversial idea but one that has lately been embraced by Republican lawmakers in Indiana and Louisiana.
“For too long, we’ve merely talked about the virtues of school choice without really doing something about it,” Mr. Romney said.
Chester E. Finn Jr., president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, an education policy group, said Mr. Romney’s proposal would significantly shift how the two largest Education Department programs for kindergarten through 12th grade students — those for poor students and those with disabilities — are now run.
“It’s a fundamental structural change of focus away from districts and schools to focus on kids and families,” Mr. Finn, an education official under President Ronald Reagan, said. “It changes the allocation of power as well as money, from people running school systems to parents choosing schools.”
But apart from the symbolism, the shift might not lead to many students choosing better schools, since the federal government pays only about 10 percent of education costs for students. States and school districts, which provide the balance, have in many cases already embraced the portability of financing when students choose a school beyond their neighborhood.
“Frankly, it catches up the federal policy to what is already state policy” in many places, Mr. Finn said.
Michael Barbaro contributed reporting.
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: May 29, 2012
An article on Thursday about Mitt Romney’s address on his education proposals misstated the name of an education policy group whose president, Chester E. Finn Jr., assessed the plan. It is the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, not the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation