Last Thursday's Republican presidential debate made a few things painfully clear about how the current field of aspirants will deal with the role of the federal government in forcing the overhaul of America's woeful traditional public schools -- above all how front-runner Mitt Romney remains an artful dodger when it comes to his past and present views on everything.
The GOP field would rather ignore education altogether, even to the point of dismissing sensible, conservative ideas that could get better bang for taxpayers' buck. This was particularly clear when Texas Gov. Rick Perry took aim at Romney for praising President Barack Obama's school reform agenda. During a campaign event in Florida, Romney had praised U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan for having "done some good things" and applauded the administration's signature effort, Race to the Top, for spurring states such as California into expanding school choice. Romney's dodge around the issue during the debate has now given the desperate Perry some much needed ammunition. In the past few days, Perry's campaign has launched a series of ads mocking the former Massachusetts governor's penchant for flip-flopping, reminding the public that "words have meaning."
This isn't surprising. The Texas governor has made his bones in recent years by opposing Obama's school reform agenda, especially the effort to get states to embrace Common Core standards in reading and mathematics. From where Perry sits, states -- especially his own -- are more than capable of handling their own affairs on education. The fact that Perry himself has endorsed expansive federal education policy -- including the No Child Left Behind Act crafted by former president (and Perry's predecessor as governor) George W. Bush -- makes much of his posturing rather suspect. So does his willingness to take federal money when it suits his purposes. So does the reality that No Child and the rest of federal education policy is modeled on efforts Bush undertook in the Lone Star State, and the reality that Texas has fallen behind Florida and other more aggressive reform-minded states.
But Perry, as much of a flip-flopper as Romney, has always been good at playing to the crowd -- and these days, education is especially fertile ground. Less school reform-oriented Republicans, especially movement conservatives, are vocally rejecting anything that resembles the agenda of George W. Bush, whose legacy on education -- including the passage of the No Child Left Behind Act -- made him a darling of centrist and liberal Democrat reformers. The fact that Obama has adopted many of his predecessor's education policy decisions (even as he attempts to gut the law in order to further his own agenda) makes Bush's views even less palatable.
Movement conservatives may be generally supportive of expanding vouchers and charter schools, two of the most prominent elements of Bush's education policy. But they regard any talk of a strong federal role in education -- especially one that involves the Department of Education, a particularly favorite whipping boy -- as heresy. In the mind of even otherwise sensible conservative school reformers, Race to the Top, like No Child, appears to be another bit of federal overreach.
Yet, as with No Child, Race to the Top has done little to expand the federal role or even increase Washington's nine percent contribution to the nation's $594 billion in spending on schools. If anything, Race to the Top, like No Child, has made states more accountable for the dollars they receive from the federal government because they have to compete for any additional federal subsidies. With its structure as a competition, states have had to make it easier to expand school choice, subject teachers to private sector-style performance management, force districts to fix their schools, and even adopt stricter curriculum standards. Even if the states didn't get the money, they are taking on the very school reforms -- especially school choice and weakening the influence of the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers -- that many conservatives and a growing number of Democrats support.
The results from Race to the Top can be seen not only in states that received funding such as Florida (one of several states that have launched teacher performance pay plans) and Tennessee, which followed up on enacting more-rigorous teacher evaluations by abolishing collective bargaining -- and weakening the influence of the state's National Education Association affiliate. It was Race to the Top that coaxed California into enacting the nation's first Parent Trigger law, allowing for a majority of parents to force the overhaul of failure factories that their children are forced to attend (three states now have some form of Parent Trigger law on the books); the impact of the initiative remains ongoing, as 13 states this year either launched or expanded school voucher and voucher-like tax credit initiatives that allow families to get their kids out of failing schools, while states such as Florida have launched performance pay plans.
Race to the Top may have an even more influential impact if Obama succeeds in extending its underlying competition model to the rest of the $56 billion in federal subsidies ladled out annually to states and school districts. If federal spending can't be eliminated altogether, at least states should actually be accountable for the dollars they receive and for actually making sure that they prepare students for success.
Meanwhile the Race to the Top fracas is one more reminder of Romney's penchant for obfuscating his true positions in order to advance his political ambitions.
During his first run for the presidency three years ago, Romney proclaimed his support for No Child; his initial crew of campaign advisers included such big-name reformers as Harvard Professor Paul Peterson (who runs the education policy magazine Education Next), James Peyser of the New Schools Venture Fund (who was Romney's appointee to the Bay State's board of education), and John Winn, who oversaw former Florida governor Jeb Bush's reform efforts.
But in this go-round, Romney has danced around what he would actually do on the federal education front once he got into office. Nothing in his 87-page economic plan addresses the importance of reforming schools, whose failures -- including 150 students dropping out of school every hour -- will be on the dole for the long term, becoming a drain on the nation's economy and taxpayer dollars for decades to come.
But one can easily surmise what he will do just from his two terms as Massachusetts governor. While offering such school reform proposals as giving $15,000 performance bonuses to top-performing teachers, Romney also pushed to make it easier for the state to take over failing school districts. These efforts, along with his declaration in 2005 that "the failure of our urban schools and, in some cases our suburban schools… is the civil rights issue of our time," pretty much shows that he will support the same sort of reforms for which the last four presidents -- including Dubya and Obama -- have advocated in one form or another.
Unfortunately for Romney, his obfuscating is nothing new. From his backtracking from the healthcare reform effort he undertook in Massachusetts that has been a model for the federal Affordable Health Care Act, to his abandonment of the environmental efforts he undertook as governor, to his constant effort to one-up Perry and others to be the most palatable conservative, Romney has been more suit than substance. Some of this lies with his own background as a traditionally centrist corporate executive; the flexibility of thought (and resulting lack of adherence to principles) needed to successfully turn around the Salt Lake Olympic Committee, as well as run firms such as Bain Capital, doesn't serve him well in the political arena. Political chief executives must both combine a strong intellectual and ideological backbone, strong statesmanship, and an understanding that politics is the art of compromise, and of the mere possible.
Romney need not have bothered with the flip-flopping on Race to the Top. Whether it is he, Perry. or any of the other aspirants who wins the Republican nod to challenge Obama, the eventual nominee will not be able simply to mouth off about abolishing the U.S. Department of Education. He 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.