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The Romney Education Plan: Replacing Federal Overreach on Accountability With Federal Overreach on School Choice

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Governor Mitt Romney's long-awaited education address happened yesterday, but the most telling news broke the day before, when we learned that Margaret Spellings is no longer one of his education advisors. She quit on principle, I assume, because Romney decided to turn the page on No Child Left Behind. As his campaign's education "talking points" read, "Governor Romney's plan reforms [NCLB] by emphasizing transparency and responsibility for results. Rather than federally-mandated school interventions, states would have incentives to create straightforward public report cards that evaluate each school on its contribution to student learning." (Read his 34-page education policy white paper here.)

Today, there's not a single Republican in the House of Representatives, in the Senate, or running for president willing to defend federal accountability mandates. The GOP conversation has shifted to transparency, in line with what we've called Reform Realism. What a difference a decade makes.

The thrust of Romney's speech, however, wasn't his fresh view of accountability, but a major proposal on school choice. Romney wants to make Title I and IDEA dollars portable -- a form of "backpack funding" from the federal level. (This one's very much in line with what the Hoover Institution's K-12 Education Task Force proposed in February. It's also close kin to what Ronald Reagan and Bill Bennett proposed for Title I back in the late 1980's.) He said:

As President, I will give the parents of every low-income and special needs student the chance to choose where their child goes to school. For the first time in history, federal education funds will be linked to a student, so that parents can send their child to any public or charter school, or to a private school, where permitted. And I will make that choice meaningful by ensuring there are sufficient options to exercise it.

To receive the full complement of federal education dollars, states must provide students with ample school choice. In addition, digital learning options must not be prohibited. And charter schools or similar education choices must be scaled up to meet student demand.

There's a lot to be said for making federal dollars follow disadvantaged children to their schools of choice:

  • It provides incentives for good schools to attract needy kids;
  • It helps those kids exit dreadful schools;
  • It promotes integration by allowing federal funds to flow to schools that are socio-economically-mixed; and
  • It encourages states to make their own funding more portable (a la weighted student funding) -- with all manner of benefits around equity, choice, and more.

But it's not without its drawbacks:

  • It could move federal funds away from high-poverty schools (which get most Title I dollars today) to low-poverty ones;
  • The money (1,000-2,000 per pupil) isn't enough to pay for actual private-school tuition, so that part isn't apt to get much real traction;
  • By giving parents "private accounts" to spend on digital learning, tutoring, and the like, it could weaken schools' larger improvement efforts, which are mostly funded by these federal dollars.

The biggest concern, though, comes with having Uncle Sam try to use his 10 cents on the education dollar to force major changes on the states. We've seen how that works (or doesn't) in the context of accountability; why do we think it will work better in the context of school choice?

See this passage, in particular, from Romney's education white paper:

To expand the supply of high-performing schools in and around districts serving low-income and special-needs students, states accepting Title I and IDEA funds will be required to take a series of steps to encourage the development of quality options: First, adopt open-enrollment policies that permit eligible students to attend public schools outside of their school district that have the capacity to serve them. Second, provide access to and appropriate funding levels for digital courses and schools, which are increasingly able to offer materials tailored to the capabilities and progress of each student when used with the careful guidance of effective teachers. And third, ensure that charter school programs can expand to meet demand, receive funding under the same formula that applies to all other publicly-supported schools, and access capital funds.

Note especially the phrase, "Will be required." We've been down that road before! And note how far this proposal is from the "let states do whatever they want with their federal dollars" approach of House education committee chairman John Kline.

A better idea might be to take a page from the Obama Administration handbook and make funding portability voluntary. Give states the option to "voucherize" their Title I and IDEA funds. Make them take the steps above in order to participate in that option. May offer a little extra money on top. And see if you get any takers. That's a way to promote innovation and choice without falling into the same federalism trap that snared No Child Left Behind. And states that opt into it would very likely make their own dollars portable, too.

This plan is a good start. You've got 5 ½ months till Election Day, Governor Romney, to make it even better.

Originally published on the Fordham Institute's Flypaper blog.

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