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The Problem With Mitt Romney's Education Plan

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A blog I posted this March questioned the wisdom of President Obama's plan to lower the cost of college. Now that the Republican nominee is all but assured, it's time to assess Mitt Romney's education plan, which came out last week.

Where to begin?

Let's start with the well-ballyhooed visit to a school in Philadelphia, where the governor said having two parents in a home was a key to a better education. The governor offered no research to back this statement up, so you have to wonder if this is just based on personal opinion -- and if that's the case, what is it doing in a policy statement?

Romney followed that up with a data-based conclusion that flies in the face of common sense and years of education research. Citing a report by the McKinsey Global Institute, Romney asserted class size had no impact on student learning -- after all, our classes aren't any bigger than the average class size in Finland, right?

Well, not really. If you take out US special needs classrooms, the US Department of Education says our class size is about 25. According to Finland's Minister of Education, Finland's average class size is 21 -- in first grade, it's 19.

If you're convinced four more students don't matter all that much, think about the last time you drove your child to soccer practice by herself. Now think about the trip you took when you had four of her friends come along. Different experience, wasn't it?

The governor's trip to Philly was topped off by advocating for vouchers, the alleged cure-all for bad public schools. Give the students and their families a choice about where they will go to school, and schools will have to get better to compete for customers -- er, students...

...except, of course, some schools can't do that without first having the money that they can only get by keeping the students they already have. For several years, Michigan has had a "schools of choice" policy in place, where parents can enroll their children at any participating school in their county or a neighboring region. During the time schools of choice has been in effect, enrollment in Detroit Public Schools is in free-fall -- from 104,000 in 2007 to just under 66,000 this current school year.

Only part of that is due to schools of choice, but it's clear that no one from outside of Detroit is rushing to enroll their students in Detroit schools. Meanwhile, the schools around Detroit have had to absorb about 40,000 students, which has made average class sizes soar in these schools.

Then again, class size doesn't matter -- remember?

A thoughtful look at the education policies of both candidates leaves very little to cheer about for true education reformers. Instead of leaders who perpetually point to test scores and adopting the methods of countries who are "doing it right," what's needed is a US leader that says something like:

"An educational system has to serve the local community, and it's very much tied to a country's own history and society, so we can't take one system from another country and put it somewhere else."

But Mitt or Barack didn't say that -- that's a quote from Henna Virkkunen, Minister of Education for Finland.

Now there's an idea worth importing.

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