On Wednesday morning Mitt Romney rolled out his heretofore non-existent education agenda in a speech at the Chamber of Commerce in Washington, DC. Speaking to the Latino Coalition’s Annual Economic Summit, Romney pledged, “I will pursue bold policy changes that will restore the promise of our nation’s education system.”
He also released a list of education policy advisers and a white paper detailing his proposals. Romney offers a return to the George W. Bush era on education policy. His education committee is stacked with veterans of the Bush administration and Bush’s first education secretary, Rod Paige, will serve as special adviser. Romney is also returning to Bush’s focus on offering parents accountability from schools and choice among them. On higher education student loans, Romney proposes to revive Bush’s legacy of wasteful crony capitalism by replacing efficient federal loans with expensive, inefficient and burdensome private loans.
Rhetorically Romney is framing education, as Bush did, as his token area of compassion. It is a version of what Michelle Cottle characterized in 2000 as Bush’s “ricochet pander” to moderate suburban white voters with outreach nominally targeted at minorities. In this case Romney is pretending to care about the opportunities afforded to disadvantaged children. Romney’s paper decries “the achievement gap facing many minority groups” that it says “flows as a direct consequence from the poor quality of the schools that serve disproportionately minority communities in low income areas.” But it does not bother to try to prove this causal relationship, or to ask whether poverty might be the direct cause of low academic achievement. That would be an uncomfortable question for Romney, since he proposes to cut federal anti-poverty programs.
Romney echoes Bush’s famous invocation of “the soft bigotry of low expectations.” “Here we are in the most prosperous nation, but millions of kids are getting a third-world education,” said Romney. “And, America’s minority children suffer the most. This is the civil rights issue of our era. It’s the great challenge of our time.” (The Romney campaign immediately promoted praise for Romney’s speech from Julio Fuentes, president and CEO of the Hispanic Council for Reform and Educational Options.)
This agenda and set of advisers places Romney squarely in the more moderate wing of the Republican Party on education policy. In the last few years the Tea Party movement has pulled the party back towards its earlier position of staunchly opposing any active federal role in education even to promote reform. The resurgence of states’ rights, small-government conservatism within the GOP has paralyzed Congress on overdue reauthorization of NCLB. In the Republican primaries it also led former advocates of education reform such as Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum to call for abolishing the DOE and repealing in NCLB. Romney said said he will, “either consolidate [DOE] with another agency, or perhaps make it a heck of a lot smaller.”
But Romney avoids much discussion of what he would do about NCLB. This may be politically shrewd, but it is cowardly. NCLB remains the largest federal education law, and it will have to be addressed.