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Romney Steps into Education Fight

With Romney cruising unopposed toward the Republican nomination, the general election season has now begun in earnest. Romney has decided to begin his General Election campaign with a speech on a somewhat surprising subject: education. As the New York Times reports, Romney described the failure of American education to provide for minorities as “the civil rights issue of our era” and compared American educational performance to that of a third-world country. Parental choice, teacher accountability, and an increase in charter schools, Romney argues, provide the best chance at improving our education system.

Thus far, economic issues have overshadowed educational ones for both candidates, but Romney has honed in on the former in some campaign speeches. This shouldn’t be a surprise: Education is one of the issues where the national consensus has been moving the GOP’s way for some time. Charter schools, voucher programs, and school choice are no longer just Republican talking points; they’re cornerstones of the growing bipartisan educational reform movement. This is why Romney’s move to highlight education reform makes sense.

Sensible as it is, however, he’ll soon find that turning the education issue to his advantage in the election is easier said than done. The Democrats have already been steadily moving toward old GOP ideas on education, and Obama has embraced them more readily than most, as the Times notes. The closer the president moves to Romney’s position, the more difficult it will be for him to distinguish himself from his opponent on education policy.

Nevertheless, the Democrats remain vulnerable on education. Teacher unions are unpopular, bureaucracies are unpopular, and national dissatisfaction with the educational system remains high. Democrats will find it hard to buck their status quo record, as well as their union supporters. Republicans, meanwhile, are on the popular side of the issue. Parental choice is a winner; generally in American politics the side advocating individual freedom has the high ground.

For Romney, this is a rare issue that both energizes the conservative base of the Republican Party and reaches out toward the center ground in an inclusive way (the biggest victims of the current public school mess are minorities and the poor). The ability of the campaign to come up with solid policy ideas and exploit the political opening education offers will be an important test of both the policy and the political skills of the GOP hopeful.

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  • Chase

    While school choice is fine with me, it’s worth noting that all the countries that are kicking our posteriors in math do not have vouchers, and yet our poor performance in comparison with these countries is cited as the reason why we need vouchers. I have another idea. Maybe we should just copy the school system they have in, say, Singapore or South Korea. These systems have worked well in Asia and they can work here. Maybe some educational entrepreneurs can set up Asian style schools in the hope of attracting American students who want the kind of academic success that is common in east Asia.

    Here is a pretty safe prediction: You can have all the school vouchers you want, in ten years, the achievement gap will be just as bad as it is today. Who will American politicians and intellectuals blame then? The key is to reform our deficient culture, while also be willing to allow for kind of educational experimentation that Professor Mead is advocating. We have instill in all people the desire to succeed in school that is common in Asia. I used to be an ESL teacher in South Korea, and I can say without hesitation that most Korean kids know that they need to study hard if they want a good future. And they sure aren’t going to sports practice for three hours every day after school unless they have a very good chance of turning pro, as that would get in the way of studying. It’s easy to trash government employees. It’s much harder to instill in students the desire to succeed and to convince parents to turn off the tv and force their kids to study.

    And since it seems that the desire for major educational restructuring is emanating from all sides of the political spectrum these days, presumably some small scale, no brainer, changes will meet with universal approval. The school day must be lengthened and the summer vacation should be reduced to one month instead of three. An uncomfortable question then arises: who will pay for the longer school day and the longer school year?

  • Jbird

    Romney should trot out every one of those kids who lost vouchers in DC and were sent back to into a truly awful system when the Dem controlled congress ended the program.

  • thibaud

    What Chase said. Vouchers may help a handful of very poor kids, but they won’t make a dent in the overall achievement rates for US schools because the problem is cultural.

    This is why Korean-American kids scores on international tests mirror the scores for Korean kids in Korea; ditto for Mexican-Americans and Mexican kids in Mexico.

    So long as the culture of The Big Stupid prevails in the homes of most Americans, we will see underachievement by American kids – no matter how much we spend, how much we bash and harass teachers, how much in voucher funding we provide.

    Re. Romney, he’s late to the party. The GOP was outflanked on this issue years ago by Obama and his Education Secretary Arne Duncan.

    The only transformational idea that Romney put forward which hasn’t already been implemented by Duncan and Obama is the idea that federal funding would follow kids. As the GOP expert cited by the Times notes, this is a trivial change in a nation where 90% of the funding is done locally.

  • Walter Sobchak

    From today’s Wall Street Journal: “The Obama campaign said Mr. Romney’s plan to roll back No Child Left Behind rules on low-performing schools “stops the clock on decades of reform.””

    Just roll that around in your mind for a while. Decades of reform. Wow. How many more decades before things stop getting worse?

    A bunch of years ago, Fortune Magazine wrote that American Education is like Soviet Agriculture. Every couple of years major reforms are announced, and yet it continues to perform abysmally. Well, Soviet agriculture is no longer a problem. How long will it be before the same is said of American public education.

    #1 Chase: People need to be reminded that Obama choose not to send his kids to DC public schools, and that all parents should have the same right.

  • Jeff Medcalf

    Chase and thibaud, with all due respect, you are exactly wrong. Children by their nature want to please adults. They will do what is expected of them as best they can. Our education system is designed to turn out clerks and factory workers, able to read and write minimally and trained to obey arbitrary authority. It excels at the task, which also means that, because of the uniformity of the system, it is pathetically incapable of turning out good craftsmen, engineers, scientists, leaders, good citizens. What is most needed is a variety of approaches, so that children can get the education best suited and most interesting to them.

    But the current system sucks all the money available, and usually more than is prudent, and do only a very few parents have the option to get a different and more appropriate education for their children. We homeschool our four for under half, and maybe under a third, of what our state would spend on just one of them in public schools. Not all parents are capable or willing to homeschool, and many of those who are do not have the option. Private schools are too expensive do most. Public charter schools get about 2/3 of the funding of a regular public school (in OH at least), and can help. But it’s very difficult to get a charter school running in most states.

    So realistically, the only way to better allocate the educational funding that we have is to devolve it closer to the students. And vouchers do that admirably.

  • Art Deco

    Just a thought, gentlemen, that F. Fukuyama’s hypothesis might be right: cultural and social-psychological factors influence the capacity of a nation to build effective public bureaucracies. France does it well, we do not. Optimal performance in this country may be had through using different conduits. We do not have equivalents of South Korean chaebol in this country either, and it is a good thing too.

    With regard to vouchers, there are a menu of reasons to adopt the practice:

    1. We live in a culturally fissured society. Schools incorporated as private philanthropies and financed by vouchers, donations, and endowment income (not tuition) will allow for a variety of disciplinary practices and institutional sensibilities to flourish for each social segment.

    2. Liberal use of regents examinations conjoined to vouchers can enhance transparency and allow dissatisfied parents to depart problematic schools without the severe inconvenience of selling their homes.

    3. Private schools funded by vouchers would be able to readily engage in triage – removing the behaviorally problematic students. Local sheriff’s departments can run schools to house these.

    We do not need the world’s best schools. We need a system which communicates well to parents just what it is their children have been learning and allows them to adjust their children’s situation with minimum friction. An educational monopoly, a curriculum consisting of a haphazard assemblage of the arts and sciences and little vocational training, and guild privileges extended to teachers’ colleges and teachers’ unions are a recipe for a system which exists to please time-servers.

  • Art Deco

    I would be pleased if Romney offered that he has seen no evidence of economies of scale in the provision of secondary and primary schooling of such character as would render beneficial the intervention of the central government and that he has seen no evidence that the U.S. Department of Education or its antecedents was at all effective in breaking rent seeking iron triangles at the state and local level. The conclusion of these propositions is manifest.

  • billy

    i glad to see that he is helping

  • John Barker

    Why don’t some of these geniuses,who who know what is wrong with our educational system, open model schools to teach the rest of us how to do the job? I have listened to decades of hot air about reforms,but have seen them mainly fail in practice. Most reform efforts consist of test score inflation (practice taking tests rather than expanding domain knowledge),changes in the constitution of the student body, sampling error,cheating, or manipulation of data (i.e. lowering the score necessary to achieve “proficiency” on a given test).

    Teaching to improve basic cognitive skills is possible, I believe, but little is known about how to do it in a mass educational setting. I will say that the KIPP approach offers some real hope but may only work for self selected and motivated students. This is enough for a start even if it does not produce the dramatic headlines politicians seem to crave.

  • Lucas Jensen

    I just want to say to him: give me a break. His plan calls for the usual: teacher union reform, student loan “reform,” vouchers, etc., plus no end to our ridiculous testing-testing-and-more-testing “accountability” movement. I could go on and on, but I have this to say: Teachers unions? What teachers unions? I live in the Southeastern United States, home to most of the lowest-achieving schools in the country (though, again, this is based on questionable testing). And guess what? We have NO teacher unions. Sure, there are some professional organizations here and there, but most of our states are “right to work” states with little union presence in any profession. In all my time around education in the South I have never met a union rep, nor heard of anyone joining a union, and I certainly haven’t ever felt their presence. If someone mentions union reform as the #1 way to improve our schools, I just look at them and laugh. BZZZT. Try again.

    Until we address issues like systemic poverty and the fact that kids aren’t in school for 16 hours of the day. In this country, we have mistakenly conflated education with schooling, failing to recognize that education comes from all life experiences, from churches, peer groups, the Internet, and so much more. And most of it comes from their parents and guardians. Teachers see every kid for about one hour, five days a week, and yet they eat the biggest load of poop with regards to children’s educational achievement, particularly with regards to the mythical influence of teacher unions. Are unions sometimes kinda messed up? Sure. Are there bad teachers? God, yes. But in the South, the most impoverished area of the country, they’re not even a factor, but still somehow used as a straw men from addressing the real systemic issues that affect kids.

  • Chase


    I am not against vouchers, and I agree with you that kids want to please their parents. My point is the vouchers – or any kind of reform measure – won’t get us the results we want without big time cultural changes. I have and worked in South Korea, and it was clear to me that, on average, they value studying and hard work much more than we do here.

    If you don’t believe me, check out this episode of Fareed Zakaria’s show, GPS. It will give you a sense of just how committed Koreans are to the education of their children. This is a huge cultural difference, but it’s something we can change if we as a people really do want to change.

    It’s important to note that I am not trying to argue against educational reform measures. I am a HUGE believer in the KHAN academy. I am currently using it and I think that it has enormous potential to change the way that people learn around the world.

    I can see why some people would think that my previous post was an attack on school choice, since Democrats often use the culture argument as a way of dismissing the school choice movement. This should not be an either/or question, and since the only way to know if vouchers will work is to conduct experiments, we should not try to stop them.

    That said, we can’t ignore the fact that our culture does not encourage academic achievement as much as it should. Don’t take my word for it, check out this book. In it, David Anderegg provides some pretty depressing stories of brainy kids being treated quite badly in school. Far and away the most disturbing chapter in the book talks about adults embracing this attitude by telling their kids that they shouldn’t spend too much time studying and disparaging other kids who excel academically.

  • thibaud

    @ Jeff Medcalf – riddle me this: how is it that the exact same educational system produces such widely divergent outcomes within the same population covered?

    California’s public schools have the same curriculum everywhere. The testing regimen is the same. The teachers, in good districts and bad, are nearly all of them drawn from the same Cal State schools – same training, similar levels of intelligence/intellectual achievement.

    So how can it be that California has about half its population achieving at third-world levels and about 10-15% achieving at world-beating levels? Both cohorts are exposed to the exact same system.

    All the evidence we have indicates that culture, specifically the culture of the home, trumps every other factor in explaining school achievement.

  • Richard W. Bray

    Here’s how Romney could win votes on education. He should say that NCLB (sponsored by Romney nemesis Ted Kennedy)is unnecessary and unconstitutional federal interference in education policy which should be determined at the state level.

  • Richard W. Bray

    Race to the Top, of course, is also unnecessary and unconstitutional federal interference in education policy which should be determined at the state level.

  • Richard W. Bray

    Reagan, Reagan, Reagan. Block grants, block grants, block grants.

  • thibaud

    @15: you forgot to add the perfunctory “… peace be unto Him”

  • stan

    “For Romney, this is a rare issue that both energizes the conservative base of the Republican Party and reaches out toward the center ground in an inclusive way…”

    How clueless is this line?

    Tax cuts, reducing government bureaucracy and spending, repealing Obamacare, upholding religious freedom, defeating cap and trade and other global warming boondoggles — the list of issues which energize the GOP base and appeal to a majority of US voters just goes on and on.

    Rare? ‘Rare’ is a way to describe reporters who asked about Obama’s past, people who remember him from college, his girlfriends, Barack’s efforts to reach out to the GOP or Congress, or the times he’s opted out of a vacation or round of golf.

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