Romney Campaign: Restoring the Promise of American K-12 Education

This week surrogates from the Obama and Romney campaigns will discuss education policy issues here.  You can see previous posts below. This is a post by Marty West, a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and advisor to the Romney campaign:

Ensuring that all children in the United States have access to an education that equips them to pursue their dreams is both a fundamental American value and essential for lasting economic prosperity.  Yet in too many corners of our nation, disadvantaged children lack access to an effective school that can give them the opportunity they deserve.  Across the nation, our K-12 school system is a world leader in spending yet lags on virtually every measure of results.

Governor Romney’s plan to restore the promise of the American education system begins with a renewed commitment to choice and innovation.  For starters, he would take the $25 billion in federal funds for low-income and special education students and make them portable, following eligible children to any district or charter school—or enabling them to enroll in a tutoring program or take courses online.  This simple step would render irrelevant existing regulations on the use of federal funds that constrain local innovation; eliminate a key obstacle to making state and local education funds portable; and firmly establish the principle that public education funding should empower students, not sluggish and change-resistant district bureaucracies.  States like Arizona, Florida, Indiana, Louisiana and Ohio, all of which have taken the lead in creating private school choice programs would, for the first time, be able to use federal funds to support those efforts.  This is exactly the way Pell Grants work in supporting higher education options for students and one of the reasons why we have seen such innovation in different approaches in delivering higher education.

Of course, choice is only valuable if good choices exist.  To promote the supply of high-quality schools and encourage technological innovation, Governor Romney would require states accepting federal funds to eliminate caps on online programs and charter schools and establish equitable funding policies for digital education providers.  He would make federal funds available to support the expansion of charter management organizations with a track record of strong performance.

And he would expand and secure permanent funding for the over-subscribed DC Opportunity Scholarship Program, which provides 1,700 desperately poor children in the nation’s capital with the opportunity to attend a private school.  A Congressionally mandated evaluation confirms that the program boosts high school graduation rate for participating students.  Yet President Obama, despite his inauguration promise to set aside ideology and fund programs that work, has repeatedly tried to eliminate the program and been sadly effective in curbing its growth.

Choice also needs to be supported with transparent information, if it is to drive improved performance.  That’s why Governor Romney’s proposals to reform No Child Left Behind focus on ensuring that parents receive accurate, timely information about their schools’ success in raising student achievement.  Report cards will assign schools clear letter grades, report student (and subgroup) performance against national benchmarks, and include information on spending that allows parents and taxpayers to hold schools accountable for their use of public funds.  In exchange for increased transparency – and in recognition of the woeful track record of the federally mandated school turnaround efforts favored by the Obama administration – states will be granted new flexibility when it comes to intervening in low-performing schools.

Finally, the evidence is clear that the supply of high-quality schools depends above all on our ability to attract effective teachers into the profession – and keep them there.  Here the federal government can help by getting out of the way.  Governor Romney would eliminate the “highly qualified teacher” provision of No Child Left Behind which, though well-intentioned, serves only to reinforce outmoded certification regimes that prevent talented individuals from entering the teaching profession and to create headaches for trail-blazing organizations like Teach for America.  He would also consolidate the $2.5 billion in federal funding currently aimed at promoting teacher quality, most of which is used for class-size reduction or low-intensity professional development with no evidence of effectiveness, into flexible block grants for states that have adopted new teacher evaluation systems, reward effective teachers with additional compensation and advancement opportunities, and have eliminated statutory and contractual barriers to basing personnel decisions on performance.

It is unfortunate that, rather than debate Governor Romney’s education proposals, the President and his surrogates continue to launch misleading attacks suggesting (most recently) that Governor Romney will cut Pell Grants.  This has been proven false by numerous third-party fact checkers. The President, in turn, has failed to put forward a plan to pay for the $58 billion hole facing the Pell Grant program over the next 10 years, nor has he said how he would pay for a permanent fix to prevent student loan interest rates from doubling. He has also failed to strengthen higher education for job training.  The Inspector General at the Department of Labor recommended that his $500 million green-jobs training program be shut down because it had only placed 15% of its participants.

In a May speech to the Latino Coalition’s Annual Economic Summit, Governor Romney noted that the tragedy of our education crisis “is not just a matter of test scores and international rankings. It’s the frustration of a sixth grader who wants to learn more, but is stuck in a class that’s moving too slowly. It’s the embarrassment of a 10th grader who knows he can’t read the books he’s assigned. It’s the shame of a 12th grader who’s supposed to be ready to graduate, but hasn’t mastered the skills he or she needs to succeed in life.”

Right now, far too many American students experience that shame.   As Governor of Massachusetts, Mitt Romney worked with an overwhelmingly Democratic legislature to implement a reform agenda that made the state’s public schools the best in the country.  As president, he will bring that same focus and commitment to our national educational challenges.

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