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What We Still Don't Know About Mitt Romney and Education | The Nation

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Dana Goldstein

Dana Goldstein

 Education, health, women's issues and politics.

What We Still Don't Know About Mitt Romney and Education

As Ben Adler reports, there are few surprises in Mitt Romney’s education platform, which the candidate finally unveiled yesterday in a forty-page white paper and a speech to Latino business owners. Guided by Bush administration veterans, Romney is pushing teacher accountability policies tied to student achievement data, an expansion of the charter school sector, and more freedom for parents to spend their children’s federal education dollars on private tutors and online learning—but without guaranteeing the federal funding or regulatory support necessary to ensure quality in any of these areas. All in all, Romney has skirted some of the most important and controversial issues in school reform, both within his own party and nationally. Here are my remaining questions for his campaign:

Does Romney support the implementation of the Common Core curriculum standards? Partly in response to federal funding incentives put in place by the Obama administration, forty-six states have agreed to adopt these shared English and math standards, which will be far more challenging than many current state curriculum guidelines, and will include more writing, more non-fiction reading, and greater conceptual depth in math. Meanwhile, conservative legislators in South Carolina and several other states are pushing to prevent the Core’s implementation, complaining it robs parents and local districts of influence. Romney’s education white paper never even mentions the Common Core, and makes no statement at all on matters of curriculum. A campaign staffer told Education Week that while Romney supports the Core, he believes the Obama administration has gone too far in pushing states to adopt the standards. That’s a pretty theoretical definition of “support,” since implementation of the standarnds will be the program’s key challenge.

Will Romney protect funds for poor and disabled kids? Romney’s white paper lays out a teacher quality proposal similar to the one advanced by House Republicans earlier this year. But he has been silent on another priority of the Congressional GOP: allowing local schools and districts to redirect Title I and IDEA funds—now targeted exclusively toward poor and disabled children—toward other types of programs that serve larger populations. This is a direct attack on the federal government’s traditional, civil rights-oriented role in education funding. Would Romney sign such legislation?

What about preventing draconian local budget cuts? The House GOP wants to give states and districts access to federal dollars regardless of how drastically they cut local school budgets. Current law helps tamp down on local budget cuts by tying federal aid to “maintenance of effort” on programs for disadvantaged children. Does Romney agree with the House Republicans, or with the law as it is written, and has been supported by both parties in the past?

How about the youngest learners? High-quality preschool is one of the most effective interventions to build children’s cognitive, social, and emotional development, yet only about half of American 3- to -5-year-olds are enrolled in any kind of organized program. As my colleague Maggie Severns writes at Early Ed Watch, Romney hasn’t uttered a word on the trail about pre-K, childcare or full-day kindergarten, all priorities the Obama administration has attempted to address (with mixed success) through its Race to the Top program. As governor of Massachusetts, Romney actually presided over an increase in pre-K enrollment, yet he isn’t bragging about this now, probably because pre-K is expensive.

I’d love to see a vibrant education debate between the candidates, though I’m not holding my breath. Both Romney and Obama broadly identify as standards-and-accountability reformers, with the main difference between them being their willingness to actually fund the programs they propose. What’s more, I don’t expect education issues, beyond the already hot college debt debate, to really break through in this election cycle.

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