Mitt Romney speaks about education at a Philadelphia school. (Mary Altaffer / Associated…)
With jobs and mortgages and same-sex marriage to be bandied about, who has time to talk about what kids are or aren't learning in school? The conversation finally veered toward education last week with Mitt Romney coming out with some stands. The problem was that it looked less like taking a stand and more like wobbling while trying to get a foot out of his mouth.
Romney came out swinging at President Obama for toadying to the teachers unions, which would be pretty strong stuff if it weren't so downright inaccurate. Obama has been no buddy to the unions with his insistence on making students' scores on standardized tests a significant part of teacher evaluations and his call to fire teachers who don't make the grade. In fact, The Times' editorial board has criticized Obama's stubbornness on the evaluation issue -- states can't get a waiver from the No Child Left Behind Act without falling in line with the president's views on this -- because there's little evidence it would do much to improve teaching or schools.
Romney also said he would be in favor of more school choice -- something Obama has pushed for, especially for freeing charter schools from state limits on how many can exist. So what does Romney mean by going further on choice? That wasn't made exactly clear, although the voters might be able to take a hint from his criticism of Obama for ending the school voucher system in Washington, D.C. So is Romney calling for vouchers? That would certainly be a conservative stand, but for a candidate who as governor voiced strong support for the institution of public schools.
COMMENTARY AND ANALYSIS: Presidential Election 2012
As for No Child Left Behind, Romney has traditionally been a supporter of the school reform law, but now that the once bipartisan law is bipartisanly reviled, he says that he would manage to get a revised law through Congress, one that would refrain from having the federal government dictate quite so many things about how schools are run or precisely how states would measure progress.
That's exactly what Obama has wanted to do, but Congress has been unable to pull together to change the badly written law, which is why the president is offering the possibility of waivers from the act's more draconian provisions. Romney wasn't specific about how he would get unruly lawmakers to heed his wishes any more than they listened to Obama. It's also unclear how the nation could have an expanded voucher system at the same time that the federal government softens its system for measuring whether students in those schools are making progress. Private schools get to accept the students they want -- and throw out the students they no longer want -- while taxpayers pick up the tab. It has never been a good idea, and it is sure to undermine public schools.
And what's the point if we don't have strong measures in place for assessing whether those private schools are actually doing a good job of educating children? There are many terrific charter schools, and many inferior ones. Education officials give great lip-service to eliminating bad schools, but so far, the system doesn't get rid of them so much as offer new alternatives that might not be any better.