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.
If Romney fears upsetting Tea Party activists, he is right to. The more intensely ideological among them are already displeased with what he has proposed on other aspects of education policy. “We can only conclude that this is further evidence that Mitt Romney hasn’t yet gotten a clue about what real conservatism is, nor has he any idea that big government, top down educational programs are anything more than serious unconstitutional meddling,” says Jane Aitken, co-founder of the New Hampshire Tea Party and a Ron Paul supporter. But Romey is right to suspect that NCLB, due to its higher profile, will set off specific alarm bells. “If they plan to go back to No Child Left Behind, or continue with programs like that, people are going to be upset,” says Jenny Beth Martin, co-founder of the Tea Party Patriots.
Eliminating, or even dramatically reduce the size of, the DOE is pure political theater, not in itself a serious policy proposal. As with all cabinet departments, DOE’s spending is primarily the function of implementing certain programs, passed by Congress. Unless you propose to eliminate those programs, you are not really proposing to save much money by simply moving them into a different department. The two main programs in the DOE are Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which offers assistance for children from low-income families, and the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act (IDEA). Unless you want to eliminate federal aid to poor children and disabled children, you cannot eliminate the federal role in education.
Instead Romney proposes making those funds portable, so that a student can take them to the school of their choice. But, as the Obama campaign’s policy director James Kvaal noted on a conference call with reporters Wednesday afternoon, “Both Title I and IDEA funding to schools is already based on enrollment. Gov. Romney appears to be proposing mechanical changes but he hasn’t spelled out how that would work or be different from current law.” This is sort of detail is missing from much of Romney’s agenda. For example, Romney says that he will give schools report cards so that parents can better assess their performance. But if it’s just repackaging information that is already out there, it is not clear how Romney’s proposal differs, much less makes any noticeable improvement upon, the status quo.
Changes to IDEA or Title I would require congressional action. Since a significant portion of the Republican congressional caucus opposes any federal role in schools--or demands such a limited one that they cannot be mollified while getting the votes to pass a bill through the Senate, where Democrats will at least hold enough seats to filibuster--it is hard to imagine Romney’s proposals coming to pass anyway.
What would get support from Republicans is his fiendish desire to undo student loan reform. The Romney campaign summarizes his proposal thusly: “Reverse President Obama’s nationalization of the student loan market and welcome private sector participation in providing information, financing, and the education itself.” This is code for two things: privatizing student loans and throwing good money after bad into for-profit colleges. In 2010 the Democratic Congress eliminated the Federal Family Education Loan (FFEL) program, under which the federal government guaranteed and subsidized loans to students, and moved all federal lending into direct lending to students. Direct lending is cheaper for the government, offers the same interest rates to students, and eliminates the financial incentive for private lenders to bribe schools to choose them over direct lending. In October Obama instituted a program to encourage students who had previously borrowed under FFEL to consolidate their loans under the Direct Loan program. As Stephen Burd of Higher Ed Watch at the New America Foundation explain ed, “The initiative, which will get underway in January, will provide some savings to borrowers who take advantage of it by providing them with up to a 0.5 percent interest rate reduction on their federal loans. But the administration’s primary purpose is to simplify the repayment process for borrowers who currently have to make payments on their federal student loans to multiple loan servicers each month.”
It appears that Romney would undo all of this progress and return to the era of wasting taxpayer dollars on unnecessary corporate subsidies, even as he preaches the Gospel of Austerity. Romney’s policy brief merely says that he would “embrace a private sector role in providing information, financing and education itself.”
That last bit refers to another example of wasteful federal spending Romney apparently wishes to resurrect: for-profit colleges that derive their revenues almost entirely from federal aid while offering lackluster educations, high drop out rates and low rates of employment among recent graduates. Obama has taken several steps to address this issue, much to the dismay of Republicans who are only for government spending when the money ends up in the hands of a corporation instead of a person in need. In 2011 the Obama administration instituted a “gainful employment” rule, which punishes for-profits whose students can’t find work within three years of graduation. In April Obama announced additional protections for veterans being swindled by for-profit recruiters eager to get their hands on the especially generous education benefits that veterans enjoy. Romney opposes the gainful employment rule and touts the virtues of for-profits, claiming , “They hold down the cost of their education by recognizing that they’re competing.”
What is particularly perverse about Romney’s higher education policies is that they in no way actually embrace the free market. Providers of federally guaranteed student loans, and for-profit universities that suction federal student aid, are case studies not in the free market but in rent seeking by entrenched political interests. Their lobbying efforts to hold onto their undeserved riches rival those of defense contractors. Romney says he would bring private sector values of accountability and efficiency to education, but on higher education he would do exactly the opposite.
On K-12 education Romney’s proposals conflict with not only his party’s right wing but his own economic agenda. Romney has endorsed Representative Paul Ryan’s (R-WI) budget, which would require significant cuts to education spending.
And the Obama campaign was quick to note that Romney’s past record on education gives good reason to doubt his commitment to educational quality and access. “By his second year as governor, Romney had already forced Massachusetts schools to take the second-largest cuts per pupil in the country,” said Obama spokesman Ben LaBolt. “Those cuts forced school districts to lay off thousands of teachers…. When he got elected he tried to cut funding for early literacy in kindergarten programs, vetoed a bill to create universal pre-k in Massachusetts and questioned the value for early education. As governor he vetoed programs that would’ve helped reduce class sizes in the earliest grades where individual attention is the most important.”
Give Romney credit for this much: he has mastered the Bush playbook of education deception. Rather than simply admitting outright to opposing needed investments in education, you package Republican policies as improving educational quality through choice, free market competition and accountability. It worked for Bush politically, but it hasn’t worked for American children.