Romney's Education Choice

Romney's Education Choice
June 6, 2012

Peter Ferrara

Peter Ferrara is senior fellow for entitlement and budget policy at The Heartland Institute, a... (read full bio)

Mitt Romney is rolling through 2012 at a faster pace than Ronald Reagan rolled through 1980. He is ahead of Reagan's pace at this point in 1980. Reagan was carrying the mantel of a far bigger revolution, basically terminating the 50-year-old New Deal coalition and inaugurating a new era of American politics. But in the end the voters were probably right in choosing Romney as the man for this time in 2012. With the nation under threat of a Marxist takeover in a second Obama term, and a must win for the Republicans as a result for the survival of America, Romney presents no rough edges that will distract the public from seeing Obama's ongoing deconstruction of their country. Because Obama may take down the whole Democrat party in the process as never seen before, the Romney revolution could end up as big as the Reagan revolution.

The Failed Education Status Quo
Romney's education initiative presented late last month indicated the promising potential of a Romney revolution. Most importantly, it was based on choice, which is the most promising central theme for a true revolution of the entire welfare state.

Romney's 34-page white paper explaining the reform proposals, "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."

And it explained the problem, saying:

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."

Performance of our current public school system is so bad, it's a civil rights problem:

Our K-12 system also poses one of the foremost civil rights challenges of our time: the achievement gap facing many minority groups. The average African American or Hispanic student performs at the same level in 12th grade that the average white student achieves in 8th grade. More than one in three African American and Hispanic students fails to graduate from high school within four years of entering…. The tragic result is that instead of providing an escape from the cycle of poverty, our educational system is reinforcing it. 

The root of the problem is not lack of resources: "The cause is not a lack of public investment: as a nation we spend over $11,000 annually on each student enrolled in K-12 education, more than almost any other country." Romney's White Paper adds:

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."

Romney adds further: "Despite spending more than twice as much per student as other developed countries, our degree attainment lags behind. Currently, only 27 percent of community college students and 57 percent of those pursuing bachelor's degrees will finish within three or six years respectively." (Emphasis added.)

Romney commendably did not shrink from identifying the real root of the problem -- teachers unions. The campaign White Paper says:

Unfortunately, rather than embracing reform and innovation, America remains gridlocked in an antiquated system controlled to a disturbing degree by the unions representing teachers. The teachers unions spend millions of dollars to influence the debate in favor of the entrenched interests of adults, not the students our system should serve. The efforts of teachers will be central to any successful reform, but their unions have a very different agenda: opposing innovation that might disrupt the status quo while insulating even the least effective teachers from accountability….[T]eachers unions are consistently on the front lines fighting against initiatives to attract and retain the best teachers, measure performance, provide accountability, or offer choices to parents.

Romney's political courage and wisdom in directly taking on the teachers unions is a good sign for how he would govern.

As for higher education, Romney's White Paper explains:

"[S]tudents and their families face skyrocketing prices for higher education and, partly as a result, ever heavier debt burdens. Since 1982, the cost of college has dramatically increased by 439 percent -- dramatically higher than the growth even in the cost of health care….Students took out more than $100 billion in student loans last year, a record high, and total outstanding loans now exceed $1 trillion -- an amount that exceeds total credit card debt."

Romney rightly recognizes as well that the root of the skyrocketing college cost problem is excessive federal assistance for attending college, as the colleges are happy to hike prices in tandem with increasing federal assistance. "[F]looding colleges with federal dollars only serves to drive tuition higher," Romney rightly states.

But Romney explains that the ultimate education problem is the Obama economy and Obamanomics, as once students complete their education they are saddled with school debt but there are no jobs for them. As the White Paper says, "Of course, even the most important skills will lack value unless young graduates enter a growing economy where those skills are in demand…. Only half of those who have graduated since 2006 currently hold full-time jobs…. And even during Obama's so-called economic 'recovery,' these statistics are getting worse." Romney adds, "[E]mployment among young adults is at the lowest level since 1948, the year these statistics were first recorded. More than half of all recent college graduates are jobless or unemployed."

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) focused on students from low income families and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Romney proposes to change the law to provide this funding to the schools that the low income and special needs children and their families choose, tying the dollars to each child rather than to each school. They can choose any public or charter school anywhere in the state, as they prefer, or any private school in the state if permitted by state law. States would have to adopt these choice policies to receive the federal funds.

States would also have to remove all caps on charter schools, and provide funding to charter schools under the same formula that applies to all other publicly supported schools, including access to capital funds. This ensures that low income and special needs children will have a full scope of choices available to them.

Romney also proposes to expand the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program to serve as a model of school choice for the nation. That program has provided 1600 scholarships each year for students to attend the private schools of their choice. Romney notes that the program "is not only extremely popular, it is also incredibly successful. While only 55 percent of students in the District's public schools graduate from high school on time, an extraordinary 91 percent of D.C. students using scholarships to attend private schools do so." Romney adds, "The program also saves taxpayers money because scholarship amounts are substantially less than per-pupil spending in D.C. Public Schools." Yet, following the demands of his teacher union masters, who don't want to be subject to competition, President Obama zeroes out funding for this program in his budget.

Romney's proposal would provide sweeping national leadership, leading every state to adopt such school choice policies to obtain the federal funds. That would create a revolution in education, shifting power from the public school bureaucracy to parents, students and the family, which is why the bureaucracy and its unions oppose such reform so strongly. If parents and students have the power to determine where the funding goes, schools, teachers, administrators, and the bureaucracy would have to be maximally responsive to their concerns and preferences. No longer would complaining parents and students be treated as weird interlopers in the expert process of education.

Each school would be in a fierce competition for funds, and would have to strive to satisfy parents and students to win that competition. As a result, theincentives facing school 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. As a result, the public schools themselves would change and improve sharply. It would not only be parents and students that choose to leave for a better performing private school who would get a better education. The overall results would be much more like the performance the public gets with every other good and service in a competitive market. That is because such school choice actually serves to create a market in education.

In this new environment, the combined choices of parents, students and families would automatically work school reform. Funding would automatically and immediately flow to the schools that best satisfied parents and students with the best teaching methods, materials, and subject matter. Schools that failed to change and serve would automatically lose funding. If they persisted in failing, they would ultimately lose their students to other, better performing schools, and have to close.

This system would also promote decentralized experimentation and innovation, allowing more scope and opportunity for the demonstration of the virtue of new ideas and innovations. Experienced teachers with better ideas for instruction could more easily start their own schools to demonstrate the superiority and appeal of their innovations. The system would also allow for decentralized flexibility, with different schools striving to maximize the cultivation and flourishing of different talents and abilities, whether in math, science, music, the arts, or other disciplines. Competing schools would be tailored to the needs and skills of children, not one size fits all from a government monopoly that leaves many behind because the material is too easy or too hard.

Every child is different. Some kids have learning disabilities. Some boys need strict discipline and should not be in coed schools. Some kids have a special talent for music, talent, entrepreneurship, sports, vocational skills. Some families want religious education, others don't. Some need individualized attention. Some have severe behavior problems that can be overcome with the right stylized program. With school choice as Romney has proposed, parents and students could then each pick the school that best served their particular needs and preferences.

Power to the People
Romney continues this theme of power to the people, proposing to slash the federal prescriptions and micromanagement of No Child Left Behind (NCLB), and replacing them instead with comprehensive public reporting requirements of results in each school and district that would aid families in using their new choice powers to choose among schools. "Parents will be empowered with the information needed to make good choices about their children's education," as Romney says. This transparency would expand even further the revolutionary power of Romney's choice proposals.

Additional proposed reforms would further complement Romney's choice revolution. He proposes to eliminate the ineffective NCLB federal mandate that all teachers of core academic subjects achieve certification that they are "highly qualified." Instead Romney would direct funding towards "states and districts that actually attract and reward highly-effective teachers and remove ineffective ones from the classroom." He notes that "Federal agencies spend over $4 billion each year on more than 80 different teacher quality programs, with little to show in terms of results." He would consolidate these programs into a single block grant back to the states. Romney explains, "states seeking block grants will be required to establish evaluation systems based in part on effectiveness in advancing student achievement, reward effective teachers and principals with additional compensation and advancement opportunities, eliminate or reform teacher tenure, streamline the certification process for becoming a teacher, and prohibit seniority-based transfer and dismissal rules (including Last-In, First-Out layoffs)." This would provide the leadership to further rationalize education into a cost-efficient, effective, functioning marketplace serving students and their families, rather than a bureaucracy controlled by special interests lining their own pockets.

In fact, it would be highly desirable to block grant the entire federal Department of Education back to the states, as education is primarily a state not a federal responsibility. Federal funds can be distributed by Treasury, Commerce or HHS (as it used to be), with federal education data collected by the funding department as well.

Higher Education Choice
For higher education, where choice already prevails, Romney proposes further reforms to complement that choice. He explains, "Despite requirements that colleges and universities report volumes of data to the U.S. Department of Education, there is no simple way for students to access that data and interpret its implications. A Romney Administration will eliminate unnecessary data collection requirements and partner with existing private-sector entities to create consumer-friendly data on the success of specific institutions of higher education."

Romney also proposes to reopen student loan financing to private sector lenders as well, 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 also remove regulatory barriers to the business of online education, encouraging it to expand and flourish into a new world of 21st century digital education.

Finally, Romney proposes a further complementary higher education revolution:

[C]ompetence and skills drive our economy, yet our higher education system awards degrees based on the amount of time spent in the classroom regardless of how quickly or slowly an individual masters the material. The current emphasis on time to degree, rather than measured competency, discourages more innovative learning solutions and continues the frustration of employers who are unable to fill high skilled positions. Forcing students to complete a fixed term of study also drives up the costs for those who might need less time, while graduating those who have not yet obtained market ready skills. Federal regulations and aid rules must change to facilitate instead of obstruct models that recognize and address this reality.

Such change would further slash the power of the education establishment bureaucracy and expand the power of students in the market, while opening more higher education to more Americans.

Romney's proposed power to the people education revolution is a good start on campaign policy proposals. Just as Reagan did in redefining the debate and the election of 1980, Romney should follow up with more such carefully considered, conservative, market-oriented reform proposals, and keep the 19th century minds of the Obama campaign on the intellectual defensive.

Peter Ferrara

Peter Ferrara is senior fellow for entitlement and budget policy at The Heartland Institute, a... (read full bio)