From The New York Times
“Voucher” is a fighting word in education, so it may be understandable that when Mitt Romney
speaks about improving the nation’s schools, he never uses that term.
Nonetheless, as president, Mr. Romney would seek to overhaul the federal government’s largest programs for kindergarten through 12th grade into a voucherlike system. Students would be free to use $25 billion in federal money to attend any school they choose — public, charter, online or private — a system, he said, that would introduce marketplace dynamics into education to drive academic gains.
His plans, presented in a recent speech
at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, represent a broad overhaul of current policy, one that reverses a quarter-century trend, under Republican and Democratic presidents, of concentrating responsibility for school quality at the federal level.
“I will expand parental choice in an unprecedented way,” Mr. Romney said, adding that families’ freedom to vote with their feet “will hold schools responsible for results.”
His proposals are the clearest sign yet that Republicans have executed an about-face from the education policies of President George W. Bush, whose signature domestic initiative, the No Child Left Behind
law of 2002, required uniform state testing and imposed penalties on schools that failed to progress.
Now Mr. Romney is taking his party back to its ideological roots by emphasizing a lesser role for Washington, replacing top-down mandates with a belief in market mechanisms. It is a change driven in part by Tea Party
disdain of the federal government. In the Republican presidential nominating fight, candidates competed in calling to shut the Education Department.
Mr. Romney, who never went that far, also seems hemmed in politically by the fact that President Obama promotes many solutions that were once Republican talking points, including charter schools
and teacher evaluations tied to test scores.
“There’s not much left for Republicans to be distinctive about,” said Chester E. Finn, Jr., president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, an education policy group. “The one line the Obama folks have refused to cross is the voucher line” — that is, allowing students to use taxpayer money to attend any certified school, even a private school.
Specifically, Mr. Romney proposed to change federal payments made to schools with large numbers of poor and disabled students into an individual entitlement. Students would take a share of the $25 billion in two federal programs to the school of their choice.
He would also extract the federal government from intervening to turn around the lowest performing schools, which has been a chief focus of the Obama administration. Instead, to drive improvement, Mr. Romney would have schools compete for students in a more market-based approach to quality.
Advocates for vouchers say they will have a larger impact if they become more widespread.
One of Mr. Romney’s ideas for increasing students’ choices seems to contradict an anti-Washington emphasis: giving poor students the freedom to choose a public school outside their district.
District boundaries have long been sacrosanct. They prevent urban students, for example, from enrolling in suburban schools that typically have higher-income families and sometimes more lavish budgets.
Once thought to be moribund, the voucher movement was revived by gains Republicans made in the 2010 midterm elections. Fourteen states since then have introduced or expanded private school vouchers, according to the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice.
The money for the vouchers would come from two federal programs that Mr. Romney would overhaul that target students deemed in need of extra support: Title 1, for economically disadvantaged students; and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. Currently the money from both programs, the largest K-12 initiatives in the Education Department, is awarded to states and districts based on federal formulas.
Grover J. Whitehurst, a Romney adviser, said that remaking the programs into individual payments that follow the student — he used the metaphor of a student’s backpack — could attract other streams of education dollars.
“If you connected state funding with federal funding, then you’re talking about a backpack with enough money in it to really empower choice,” said Mr. Whitehurst, director of education policy at the Brookings Institution. “The idea would be the federal Title 1 funds would allow states that want to move in this direction to do so, and if they did so, all of a sudden it’s a game changer.”