Mitt Romney has never been known for taking strong stances on the issues. But he has proven to be even more artfully dodgy than usual on the matter of federal education policy — and the debate over whether or not to reform America’s woeful public schools. As part of his effort to woo movement conservatives displeased with George W. Bush’s legacy as centrist Democrats’ favorite Republican on education (and longing for halcyon days of federal nonintervention that never were), Romney has avoided mentioning education in his 87-page economic plan; backed away from his support of Bush’s signature legislation, the No Child Left Behind Act; and even backpedalled from his praise of President Barack Obama’s Race to the Top school reform competition after being criticized by equally double-talking Texas Gov. Rick Perry.
As left-footed in his dodging as the former Massachusetts governor has been, he has still managed to confuse otherwise-astute reformers and commentators. Time columnist Andy Rotherham, whose Eduwonk site is one of the go-to sites on school reform, declared the other week that Romney is now to “the political right of President George W. Bush” on education policy; while Fox News commentator Juan Williams suggested last week that Romney should pick Condoleezza Rice as his running mate because of her work with former New York City schools chancellor Joel Klein on a Council on Foreign Relations report advocating for school choice and Common Core national reading and math standards.
But like so much with Romney, what you think you see isn’t always what it real. This is especially true when it comes to education. A closer look at his advisers, along with his actual record in Massachusetts, reveals that his tenure as president would more-likely resemble that of still-reviled Dubya (and even the current school reformer-in-chief) than either movement conservatives or teachers’ unions will like. And for children stuck attending failing schools — and the taxpayers picking up the tab to the tune of $591 billion a year — this is not a bad thing.
One hint of Romney’s embrace of Bush-style school reform came last Wednesday when he took aim at Obama for his latest and “inexcusable” effort to shut down the D.C. Opportunity school voucher program. The school choice program, which serves 1,615 students looking to avoid the nation’s capital’s worst schools, was favored by Dubya, who championed vouchers and charter schools as ways for parents to get their kids out of schools “that won’t teach and won’t change.”
The more-obvious hint came later that day when one of Romney’s advisers, former U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings, appeared with Colorado’s Democratic U.S. Senator Michael Bennet at a confab held in San Francisco by the Aspen Institute and school reform philanthropy New School Venture Fund, where she defended No Child and its success in exposing the extent of the nation’s problems with teaching and curriculum. Although Spellings was technically appearing in her capacity as head of her eponymous education policy consultancy, her prominent status as one of the players in crafting No Child and other Bush education policies (along with her influential role shaping the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s defense of No Child and other reforms) led reporters and commentators to wonder if she was also speaking on Romney’s behalf.
Spellings isn’t the only prominent former Bush education player on Romney’s team. One of Spellings’ charges during her days on Maryland Avenue, Grover Whitehurst (now the education czar for the Brookings’ Institution), is also advising Romney. There’s also Nina Shokraii Rees, a former Heritage Foundation analyst — and now a senior vice president at junk bond mastermind-turned-school reformer Michael Milken’s Knowledge Universe — who led Bush’s education innovation efforts.
But it’s not just Dubya’s influence that will weigh heavily on Romney’s education policies. This was clear last month when former Florida governor Jeb Bush, the ex-president’s brother, blessed the Republican presidential nominee presumptive with his endorsement. Jeb bolstered his school reform credentials during his eight years as Sunshine State governor by expanding school choice, and enacting a series of other reforms that contributed to an 11 percent decline in the percentage of functionally-illiterate fourth-graders, according to an analysis of National Assessment of Educational Progress data by education magazine Dropout Nation. And now out of public office, the former governor is playing an even stronger role in school reform through his masterminding of groups such as Chiefs for Change, whose members include such change-minded state superintendents as Chris Cerf, the tough-talking education czar for New Jersey’s equally abrasive governor Chris Christie.
More than likely, a Romney presidency would include his use the bully pulpit (and the regulatory force of the Department of Education) to push states to allow for the opening of more charter schools — the nation’s most-successful form of school choice — and launch voucher programs. He will also likely bless efforts by reformers and budget-conscious governors struggling with the $1.1 trillion in teachers’ pension deficits and unfunded retired teacher healthcare costs to end near-lifetime employment, ditch degree- and seniority-based pay scales, and embrace performance pay plans. He will probably support the efforts of education groups to develop national reading, math, and science standards. And Romney will likely hold states accountable for improving graduation rates, test scores, and percentages of high school grads going to college and technical school, while allowing them to meet those goals their own way.
In short, it will resemble the federal education policy approach of Bush and Obama. And this shouldn’t be a surprise. Even as Romney obfuscated his positions on education during the Republican primary campaigns, his record as Bay State governor had been one of a moderate reformer. Certainly he was nowhere near as passionate on the issue as Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal — who just led the passage of a reform package that included effectively ending tenure and expanding the state’s school choice program to serve as many as 300,000 kids stuck in failing schools — and he wasn’t even a Mitch Daniels. But during his tenure, Romney vetoed a proposed bill to stop the growth of charter schools, supported the creation of a high school graduation exam, and backed efforts to improve academic standards. As a result, Massachusetts is only one of two states whose eighth-grade math standards match up to those of top-performing nations such as Singapore.
Romney made clear his sympathies in a 2003 speech before a group of reformers convened by school reform outfit Rennie Center for Education Policy and Research. Declared Romney: “No Child Left Behind is following principles being championed here. That speaks volumes.”
All that said, Romney’s tendency to flip-flop, along with his background as a centrist corporate executive, makes it difficult to assume he stands for anything. Even if he sticks to the reform approach of Dubya and Obama, Romney lacks the strong intellectual and ideological backbone, firm statesmanship, and rhetorical skill that is required of the Commander-in-Chief, much less be the nation’s leading school reformer.
But Romney will have to embrace the very school reform formula — including holding states accountable for student progress, expanding school choice, and subjecting teachers to private sector-style performance management and compensation — that have been the hallmarks of Bush’s and Obama’s tenure. Which means even more angst for NEA and AFT union bosses who cling tenuously to their still-considerable influence — and more ammunition for the motley crew of conservative, libertarian, and centrist Democrat school reformers, along with the families and taxpayers tired of paying for lackluster schools.