Why Mitt Romney’s Ideas For School Choice Are Less Than They Seem

This week’s TIME column takes a look at Mitt Romney’s school choice ideas – despite all the handwringing and a ‘Back to the Future feel’ – there is less going on than it appears:

School vouchers are back in the news except that proponents of the idea, including Mitt Romney, are not using the word vouchers any more. For some reason voters don’t like that term, but they do like the idea of giving parents more choices, so vouchers — I mean “scholarships” and “choice” are a big part of Mr. Romney’s education platform. Listen to him talk about it, and it’s as though we’ve traveled back in time; substitute Bob Dole for Romney and President Clinton for President Obama, and it’s the same debate we had in the 1990s. There is a lot more choice in education now than there was two decades ago: voucher programs for private and parochial schools are well established in cities like Milwaukee and Cleveland, and states like Indiana and Louisiana have enacted them more recently. There are also about half a dozen state programs specifically for students with disabilities. Meanwhile, charter schools continue to proliferate; there are now more than 5,000 of these publicly funded alternatives that students can choose to attend rather than their traditional neighborhood school. But despite all that, this latest round of voucher-pseudonym talk probably won’t amount to much. That’s because school choice is a state-by-state game, not a federal one…

No district boundary or internet firewall can keep you from reading the entire column via this link.

12 Replies to “Why Mitt Romney’s Ideas For School Choice Are Less Than They Seem”

  1. Actually Mitt Romney’s ideas on education are largely irrelevant. A huge concensus on K-12 teaching is now emerging with almost all “reformers” and others in agreement. Whether you are Romney, Obama, Rhee, Rotherham, Bloom, Klein, etc. you are likely to agree with the following:

    Teaching children is not something you would want to do. It does not offer good pay, working conditions or prestige. For your sons and daughters, a two-year commitment is acceptable but then you expect them to go on to schools of law, medicine and business.

    For many years we depended on talented women from the working class to fill these positions, but now that these baby boomer women are retiring, who will teach our children?

  2. Linda: As always, you make good points. There does seem to be a consensus among ALL politicians and ‘reformers’ (of both parties) that no one wants to be a teacher him or herself, but at the same time they like to blame teachers for all the ills in the world (or at least all the problems that children have) and fire them. Why? I guess it’s psychological scapegoating.

    I agree with you that when the job market had an up-turn and the baby boomers all retire, schools are going to be SOL b/c they’ve fired their best teachers and scared away many other potential teachers from entering the profession.

  3. Oh, I can see I misspelled “consensus.” I meant to check it and then forgot. Thanks.

    One thing I can say for the “reform” movement is this: They have shone a bright light on the fact that few people in our society wish to teach fifth grade in an “inner-city” school. They have made it clear that it is not a job for the “elites” and have implied that only second-class citizens (i.e. the ones who attend state universities) would see these jobs as careers.

    When our economy recovers and urban districts are once again desperate for teachers, we’ll all know why. Only next time the captive women will not be there.

  4. I’m not sure I agree with you, Andy. If legislation passed tying the two big federal funding streams to significantly enhanced choice options, that would be a game changer. Of course, it would all depend on the details.

    Clearly, passing a bill with these policies would be extremely difficult. It’s been difficult to pass any reauthorization bill in the last 5 plus years.

    Now, here’s a tantalizing idea: since Obama and Duncan have broken all precedent with respect to extreme use of waivers, why shouldn’t their successors? What if Romney and his Secretary told states that continued waivers of NCLB required certain significant expansions of parental choice?!

    That could be interesting.

  5. Sandy, I can see why that’s something people want to believe but I have trouble seeing the political circumstances that bring it about? The Republican message basically boils down to don’t run schools from Washington because it’s hopeless and not good federalism.

    In this specific case, the lineup opposed to a mandate around meaningful open-enrollment for public schools would include not just Republicans concerned about federal overreach but suburban voters of all political stripes, and the education establishment. That looks to me like a majority.

    If Romney’s etch-a-sketch moment is to completely flip that script and adopt a more coercive federal role than any president, R or D, has, and genuinely empower low-income families with some choice about their schooling, then that would be as historic as it seems unlikely.

  6. In my city there is open enrollment. What this means is that any child can apply to any public school in the district, although sometimes there is a long waiting list at the “good” (i.e. affluent) schools. From what I’ve been told, persistent parents are able to enroll their children at their schools of choice. In addition to that, children can attend schools in the cities where there parents work or their babysitter resides so if a parent really wants his child to attend High-Scoring Elementary in Affluent Suburb, he can often manage it without too much effort. I know several parents who cut hair, mow laws, and clean houses in an affluent district so they can enroll their children there.

    It’s only a matter of time before public schools are open to all. Education by zip code is wrong on many levels and hurts us all. Herding poor children of color into test-prep academies with other poor children of color is no remedy either.

    Public school vouchers (or “open enrollment”) are on the horizon and will benefit the country. What we need to fight is the privatization of public schools with various entrepreneurs siphoning off school tax money from (mainly) poor schools and impoverished children. In New York there is a charter “operator” who makes over $400,000 to operate three schools that enroll fewer than 900 students in all. This person does not do any of the teaching (of course) or the school administering and is not recognized by the students when she visits the schools.

    In California we’ve already had numerous tales of charter operators absconding with school funds and leaving the students high and dry. There are signs that citizens are waking up to this movement to allow individuals to make huge profits off public schools for the poor. Stopping this unhealthy trend can’t come soon enough.

  7. Phillip, thanks for the Ravitch blog. Here’s another story by way of her blog that Romney might consider: “Researchers and Clemson University received a nearly $500,000 grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in November to study Galvanic Skin Response (GSR) bracelets, which house sensors that measure a student’s physical reaction to learning—such as increased sweating—and uses the data as a way to grade an educator’s performance.” http://www.eschoolnews.com/2012/06/13/university-research-will-evaluate-physical-data-to-gauge-teacher-effectiveness/

    I’m just speechless.

  8. Andy, what you say makes sense. It’s very hard to imagine a President Romney getting a majority of theCongress to back these ideas.

    But, if he wants to play the Obama/Duncan administrative action game to further his agenda, I’m not sure Congress would stop him. He might not demand cross-district enrollment, but he might require other dramatic choice options as a condition for relief.

    It would be very bold, and it would be quite a game changer.

  9. Why I Voted To Strike
    by a Chicago teacher

    By Lara Lindh AlterNet June 22, 2012


    Earlier this month, members of the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) voted by a nearly 90 percent majority to give the union authorization to call a strike. Actually, around 8.5 percent of the union membership didn’t vote, so they were counted as “no” votes. So among CTU members who voted, 98 percent said “yes” to strike authorization: That’s 23,780 yes to 482 no. The overwhelming support for strike authorization seemed to confuse the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) CEO Jean-Claude Brizard, who likes to assure us that he loves and respects teachers as he destroys our schools and degrades our union. But the vote didn’t come as a surprise to me.

    Here’s why I voted, along with the vast majority my brothers and sisters in the CTU, an enthusiastic “yes” to strike authorization.

    Reason No. 1: As has happened to me every spring since 2008, I was warned by my boss in March that my preschool teaching position was threatened for the following school year due to budget cuts. As I have done every spring since 2008, I spent countless hours readying my resume and my teaching portfolio, combing the want ads, and annoying my colleagues looking for another job for this coming fall. With a son, a mortgage, very little savings and a job that I love and would grieve to loose, I tried to muster the enthusiasm necessary to hunt for another job while simultaneously remaining the kind of “super-teacher” that we’re expected to be in order to maintain an evaluation rating that would allow us to be hired by another principal. In May, I was informed my job was safe, but my assistant teacher’s wasn’t. Due to budget cuts, she’s being replaced with a cheaper, part-time version.

    Reason No. 2: May is supposed to be a wonderful month for preschool teachers: We ready our student’s yearlong work portfolios and bask in the glow of their progress and reminisce about how far we’ve come. We go on field trips and have culminating projects that we enjoy sharing with our students and families. We look forward to summer break. We begin to say goodbye to the little people we’ve nurtured and loved and taught for the proceeding nine months. This May, I spent the entire month, as I have for the past three years, conducting a standardized test on my 4- and 5- year-old students to determine their “kindergarten readiness.” It used to be that by virtue of turning 5 years old, you were deemed “kindergarten ready.” Those days are over. In the name of accountability (which always seems to mean accountability for those with the least say-so), we have turned our schools into test-taking factories, with no child too young to be tested.

    Reason No. 3: The day before the strike vote, my school clerk stopped me in the hallway. He had an emergency letter from Jean-Claude Brizard that we had to distribute to parents informing them of why the strike vote was wrong thing for teachers to do and insulting our collective intelligence by claiming that our leadership hadn’t informed us of what was at stake in our contract negotiations. The attempt by Brizard to turn parents against teachers was expected, his condescending tone familiar, but what was unheard-of was that the letter was translated into Spanish, Mandarin, Polish and Arabic. As a teacher of English Language Learners, I was dumbfounded. We can never–I repeat, NEVER!– get materials or information translated into our students’ home languages without doing it ourselves. Was this the proverbial final straw? No, I had already made up my mind to vote “yes” because I want dignity, respect and resources for what I do and for the students I teach. But it did underline to me that if they can so easily find the resources to drag us down, then they can be forced to find the resources to build up public education.

    Reason No. 4: The $5.2 million in TIF money the city council just handed to billionairess CPS board member and infamous union buster Penny Pritzker to build another Hyatt Hotel for her empire. Resources not there? Yeah, right. I voted “yes” because I have self-respect, and I was always taught (and teach) that when you stand up for yourself against bullies and liars, others will stand up with you. Well, the teachers are standing up. Will you join us?

  10. A highlight:
    but what was unheard-of was that the letter was translated into Spanish, Mandarin, Polish and Arabic. As a teacher of English Language Learners, I was dumbfounded. We can never–I repeat, NEVER!– get materials or information translated into our students’ home languages without doing it ourselves.

    I suppose the bottom line Professional Education Reform Crowd would call that a good, important investment.
    Spend money to stop a strike vote, but claim empty pockets when asked to perform the same service on behalf of the chikldren and parents.

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