Romney’s Educational Tax Raid

I was remiss in not writing earlier about Mitt Romney’s big K-12 education initiative, which basically just involves taking all the existing federal money spent for this purpose and tossing it out there as a hand grenade designed for the destruction of public schools.

While the Obama administration has committed itself (to its own political peril) to the standards-and-accountability movement aimed at using federal dollars to leverage measurable improvements in low-performing public schools–a movement once championed by Republicans–Romney is moving in the opposite direction, proposing to turn over all those highly conditional taxpayer dollars to parents for use however and wherever they want, with zero accountability for results other than via abstract market forces. The primary beneficiaries, of course, will be private schools that will pocket public subsidies and do whatever they choose.

I know a lot of people, on the Left as well as the Right–think of “school choice” as a unitary philosophy, and consider the sharp distinctions drawn by Obama and many other Democrats between charter public schools and private schools as fairly meaningless. To them Romney is just going the logical next step beyond current law.

But the whole idea of charter schools is that they contract with public authorities to educate all students free of charge and be held accountable for specific levels of student achievement. Voucher systems like that proposed by Romney would eliminate any and all specific expectations. Both approaches are often considered threats to traditional public schools. But while public school choice is intended to challenge “traditional” schools to compete on a level playing field, voucher systems simply move the money elsewhere and abolish the “playing field” and most of the rules. It is a prescription for the destruction of the very idea of public education, other than as a mechanism for subsidizing private education.

Were Romney’s proposal to be implemented, it would place the power and the resources of the federal government against every state and local effort to improve public schools other than by their virtual abolition. Before long you’d doubtless see tax revolts against spending any tax dollars on education at any level; after all, why should any jurisdiction bother to tax itself simply to subsidize the private decisions of individual families to secure a service that is no longer viewed as public in nature?

Romney’s proposal is, of course, catnip to the Christian Right, which tends to view public schools as secularist reeducation camps designed to brainwash good God-fearing kids into accepting gay people and non-Christian religions and all sorts of nefarious modernism. Why not divert those tax dollars to the local Church of the Final Thunder Academy, free of those scary people of color, or better yet, to parents themselves for home-schooling? Next time you hear someone say Romney is a non-ideological technocrat who should be given a chance to see if he can somehow tune up the economy via those skills he deployed at Bain Capital, direct them to Romney’s education plan and ask how “moderate” it looks.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.