The Unorthodox Extremism of Mitt’s Education Policy

For the most part, Mitt Romney’s education platform—a move away from Bush and Obama’s federal accountability measures– reflects contemporary GOP orthodoxy. To a lesser degree, he has spoken favorably about Obama’s Race to the Top effort. During Wednesday night’s debate, however, he floated two ed reform ideas that don’t seem broadly popular with anyone.

First, he suggested states “grade” schools “so parents know which schools are succeeding and failing.” No Child Left Behind already mandates states do this, and it’s among the least popular of the law’s provisions. One of the reasons the Obama administration issued Get-Out-Of-NCLB-Free waivers was to mitigate the law’s stigmatizing effect on poorly graded schools–especially since states that strive for high standards inevitably have more “failing” schools than states with lower standards. But rather than replace state standards with more uniform grades, or doing away with “report cards” altogether, he’s decided to double down.

If Romney’s support for “report cards” originated as a centrist Bush-era idea, his other unorthodox idea comes from the left-wing confines of the education policy world: A proposal to let disabled and low-income students take their federal Title I and IDEA dollars with them to other school districts. As Dana Goldstein noted in Slate this week, this is something of a progressive, even radical, idea.

Coming from a Republican, this is a big deal: Historically, affluent and white parents and school districts have gone to great lengths to keep poor, nonwhite kids out of their own kids’ classrooms. Those of us concerned about the resegregation of American schools have long advocated for more partnerships between urban and suburban districts, through magnet schools and voluntary busing programs. But this is typically understood as such a lefty proposition that not even the Democratic Party will embrace it.

In other words, under Romney, the federal government might subsidize a de facto busing/school integration program the likes of which the Obama administration hasn’t come close to proposing.

What’s striking about both plans is they reflect completely different approaches to school choice. In the first, Romney is proposing that states grade schools as they have been under NCLB. Except, rather than have the federal government penalize “failing” schools, parents would simply try to move their kids out of them if they performed badly. In the second, he’s suggesting we allow disadvantaged children to enter more affluent neighborhoods, primarily by leveraging federal funds. In each case, school choice is the goal. But in one, states and parents provide the impetus; in the other, the federal government does. Perhaps more strikingly, considering their author, neither plan appears to be an obvious pander to any particular constituency. They seem to be genuinely opposite reflections of a coherent, if flawed, choice-first education philosophy.

Simon van Zuylen-Wood

Simon van Zuylen-Wood is a writer for Philadelphia Magazine.