The Public Policy

Romney’s Education Choice

Romney's education proposal would provide sweeping national leadership.

By and From the October 2012 issue

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MITT ROMNEY'S EDUCATION REFORM PROPOSAL, released in May, shows the promising potential of a conservative revolution based on choice, which should be the central theme for a true overhaul of the welfare state.

Romney’s education white paper, “A Chance for Every Child,” begins by explaining what is at stake:

Only 2 percent of those who graduate from high school, get a full time job, and wait until age 21 and get married before having children end up in poverty. By comparison, that figure is 76 percent for those who fail to do all three....

Across the nation, our school system is a world leader in spending yet lags on virtually every measure of results….On the latest international PISA test, American high school students ranked 14th out of 34 developed countries in reading, 17th in science, and 25th in math. China’s Shanghai province led the world in all three subjects, outperforming the United States by multiple grade levels in each.

Public school performance and the achievement gap facing minority students are so bad, Romney argues, that education constitutes “one of the foremost civil rights challenges of our time.”

Spending More for Less

AS ROMNEY POINTS OUT, the root of the problem is not inadequate resources, since America spends more than $11,000 per K–12 student annually. 

We spend two and a half times as much per pupil today, in real terms, as in 1970, but high school achievement and graduation rates have stagnated. Higher spending rarely correlates with better results. Even the liberal Center for American Progress acknowledged in a recent study that “the literature strongly calls into question the notion that simply investing more money in schools will result in better outcomes,” and reported from its own research that most states showed “no clear relationship between spending and achievement.”

This lack of correlation is beyond dispute.

So what’s gone wrong? The real problem, as the white paper explains, is teachers unions, which control education to “a disturbing degree” and spend millions “to influence the debate in favor of the entrenched interests of adults, not the students our system should serve.”

That Romney identifies the union problem shows great political courage and is a good sign of how he would govern.

Romney then lays out the problem of “skyrocketing” higher-education tuition, and he rightly recognizes that the root of the problem is excessive federal assistance for students, as the colleges are happy to hike prices just as fast as the federal government can throw new money at them.

But the ultimate education problem is the Obama economy: Students graduate and are saddled with school debt, but they are unable to find jobs.

Give Choice a Chance

THE FEDERAL GOVERNMENT spends more than $25 billion a year—two-thirds of its funding for K–12 education—through Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), which is focused on students from low-income families, and through the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Romney proposes to change the law to tie the dollars to each child rather than to each school, so that low-income families or those with special-needs children can use the money to enroll at any public or charter school anywhere in the state, as they prefer. And they can choose any private school in the state if permitted by state law.

In order to receive the federal funds, a state would have to adopt these choice policies. States would also have to remove all enrollment caps on charter schools and fund them under the same formula that applies to all other publicly supported schools—which includes providing access to capital funds.

Romney’s proposal would provide sweeping national leadership by making every state adopt school choice policies to obtain federal funds. This would be a revolution in education, shifting power from the public school bureaucracy to parents and students. That’s precisely why the bureaucracy and teachers unions oppose reform so strongly. If parents and students have the power to determine where the funding will go, then schools, teachers, administrators, and the bureaucracy would have to be maximally responsive to their concerns and preferences.

As a result, the incentives facing administrators and teachers would be transformed. This would spur each school to more carefully monitor its performance, move expeditiously to correct problems, and devote imagination and energy to timely innovation. School choice would create a competitive market in education—just like those that exist for other goods and services. Funding would immediately flow to the schools that satisfied parents and students with the best teaching methods, materials, and subject matter. Schools that failed to change and serve would lose funding. As a result, public schools would improve sharply. And no longer would complaining parents and students be treated as weird interlopers in the expert process of education. 

School choice also allows for decentralized flexibility. Different schools might strive to maximize the cultivation and flourishing of different talents or abilities, whether in math, science, music, the arts, or other disciplines. Competing schools would be tailored to the needs and skills of children, instead of a one-size-fits-all government monopoly.

Romney proposes other reforms that would complement his choice revolution. He would expand the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, which has provided 1,600 scholarships per year for students to attend private schools, to serve as a model of school choice for the nation.

He wants to eliminate the ineffective No Child Left Behind federal mandate that all teachers of core academic subjects achieve certification that they are “highly qualified.” Instead he would direct funding toward schools that “actually attract and reward highly effective teachers and remove ineffective ones from the classroom.” He would reform federal data collection to provide user-friendly information on school performance, which parents could use to choose among schools at all levels. He would consolidate the $4 billion in federal teacher-quality spending into a single block grant back to the states.

In fact, the best solution would be to block grant the entire Department of Education back to the states, as education is primarily a state responsibility. Federal funds could be distributed by the departments of Treasury, Commerce, or Health and Human Services (as they used to be).

Fixing Higher Ed

ROMNEY'S REVOLUTION extends to higher education. He wants students to be awarded degrees based on success in competency testing, rather than time served in a classroom. Such change would further slash the power of the education bureaucracy, which would have less time to propagandize students. He proposes reopening college student loan financing to private sector lenders, reversing Obama’s nationalization of the student loan market. He would consolidate duplicative and inefficient federal financial aid and refocus it on students most in need. He would remove regulatory barriers to the business of online education, encouraging it to expand into a new world of 21st-century digital education.

Romney’s proposed power-to-the-people education revolution is a good start. Just as Reagan redefined the debate and the election of 1980, Romney should follow up throughout the campaign with more carefully considered, conservative, market-oriented reforms, and keep the 19th-century minds of the Obama campaign on the intellectual defensive. 

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About the Author

Stephen Moore is the chief economist at the Heritage Foundation.

About the Author
Peter Ferrara is Director of Entitlement and Budget Policy at the Heartland Institute, General Counsel of the American Civil Rights Union, Senior Fellow at the National Center for Policy Analysis, and Senior Policy Advisor on Entitlements and Budget Policy at the National Tax Limitation Foundation. He served in the White House Office of Policy Development under President Reagan, and as Associate Deputy Attorney General of the United States under President George H.W. Bush.