Romney slammed the Obama administration for not funding next year’s budget for the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, created by Congress in 2004 as the first and only vehicle to provide federal money for private-school vouchers for low-income children. He said he wants to expand the program to make it a “national showcase.”
In his speech, Romney lashed out at teachers unions, which he said are entrenched interests opposed to common-sense reforms.
“When your cause in life is preventing parents from having a meaningful choice or children from having a real chance, then you are on the wrong side,” he said. “You might even be in the wrong vocation, because good teachers put the interests of children first.”
Romney also attacked Obama for his connections to the politically powerful unions, saying the president is talking about reform while “indulging” the groups that are blocking it. “He can’t be the voice of disadvantaged public school kids and the protector of special interests,” Romney said. “We have to stop putting campaign cash ahead of our kids.”
“And America’s minority children suffer the most,” Romney declared. “This is the civil-rights issue of our era. And it’s the great challenge of our time.”
He continued: “President Obama has made his choice, and I have made mine. As president, I will be a champion of real education reform in America.”
Romney said he wants to expand choices for families so children can flee failing schools. His campaign released a white paper highlighting his support for federal vouchers – a plan to reroute tax dollars sent to public schools to help educate poor and disabled children, instead letting that money follow the students to private schools. The federal government will spend $48.8 billion this year on poor and disabled students.
Romney outlined a voucher-like plan to let low-income and disabled students use federal money to attend public schools, public charter schools and, in some cases, private schools. Federal funds could also be used for tutoring or digital courses.
The idea of vouchers, which has floated around for decades, began gaining traction across the country in 2010 after Republicans won majorities in several state legislatures. Louisiana, Indiana and other states have passed programs that allow poor and middle-income children to use state tax dollars for private-school tuition. Some legal challenges have arisen regarding the constitutionality of giving public money to private religious schools.
Romney’s proposal is line with GOP reforms aimed at giving students more educational choices. The proposal is not expected to include any new federal money for education, but it represented his most detailed plans to date on what he called a “failing” education system.
Romney’s positions on education have evolved over time. He once supported the Bush-era education overhaul known as “No Child Left Behind,” but he has since generally come out against the policy many conservatives see as an expansion of the federal government.
Romney did not discuss how he would fix troubled public schools. He said No Child Left Behind, the federal education law signed by President George W. Bush in 2002, was too prescriptive, requiring failing schools to adopt specific turnaround strategies. Instead, he suggested that schools would feel pressure to improve if they had to issue public report cards documenting their performance, although No Child Left Behind already requires them to report such data.
The day before the speech, Romney announced a team of education policy advisers that includes former Education Secretary Rod Paige and other officials from President George W. Bush’s administration. Paige is among several prominent opponents of teachers’ unions on the panel. As education secretary in 2004, he labeled the National Education Association a “terrorist organization.”
SUPPORT FOR VOUCHERS
The issue of education is a key concern for most Americans. Education has ranked in the top three of importance in the AP-GfK poll for the last two years; 84 percent of Americans said education was an extremely or very important issue to them personally in the most recent survey in February. Romney hopes to gain votes by bringing his voucher plan into his campaign.
The Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, created by the late economist and free-market advocate Milton Friedman, welcomed the introduction of vouchers into the presidential campaign. “If you want to dramatically improve education, you have to give all parents the freedom to choose,” said Susan L. Meyers, a spokeswoman for the foundation.
The Wall Street Journal wrote an editorial praising Romney’s proposal. They said, “Mr. Romney has the moral and political high ground on vouchers, and we hope he keeps it up.”
The OU also commended former Governor Mitt Romney for his policy proposals. Nathan Diament, the OU’s Executive Director for Public Policy, stated: “Education opportunity and reform is a paramount priority for the Orthodox Union and our constituency. We appreciate Gov. Romney’s proposals and we look forward to a meaningful discussion of education issues in this year’s campaign.”
Yehuda Neuberger, the OU’s Public Policy Chairman, stated, “Gov. Romney’s proposal to have federal education funds ‘follow the student’, rather than become mired or diluted in a trickle down process, is most commendable. It will ensure that scarce federal education dollars more effectively support the educational needs of eligible children. Too many students – in Jewish and other nonpublic schools – who are legally eligible for federally funded education services never receive them. Gov. Romney’s aggressive proposal would remedy this problem.”
Congressional supporters of the program, including House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-OH) and Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (I-CT), have been pushing the administration to fund the vouchers.
THE FLAWS IN THE PLAN
Progressive groups said Romney’s approach would return the nation to a time without accountability. “We have a long history in this country – and you can see it in the civil rights struggle to desegregate schools – of states and districts not doing anything to provide an equal educational opportunity for all students,” said Cynthia Brown of the Center for American Progress.
A 2010 study by the Department of Education found “no conclusive evidence” that the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program improved achievement, noting that students with vouchers had reading and math test scores that were statistically similar to the scores of students without them, although they were more likely to graduate from high school.
Teachers unions are also steadfastly opposed to vouchers.
“What Romney fails to understand is that when teachers and public schools have the resources they need, students win,” said Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers. “Real public education improvement comes from teachers, administrators, parents and communities rolling up their sleeves and working together to help all kids, not just some kids, succeed.”
“His speech demonstrates a complete disdain for public schools and educators,” said NEA President Dennis Van Roekel. “He’s completely out of touch with what is happening in schools and classrooms across the country.”
Romney’s argument carries some risk. His regular criticism of labor unions, in particular, threatens to alienate voters in Rust Belt states like Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania, where a close election may be decided.
POLICIES OF OTHER AREAS
Five months before Election Day, Romney is working to add meat to his prescriptions for some of the nation’s most pressing problems. He has offered few details so far on foreign policy, health care and education, following a playbook that heaps criticism on the Democratic president’s policies but offers only a vague road map for what he would do differently.
Romney told Time magazine that if he wins the presidency, he wants Congress to wait until he takes office to deal with the so-called fiscal “cliff” on Jan. 1, 2013, when two rounds of tax cuts expire and automatic spending cuts to defense and domestic programs kick in. In the interview, Romney suggested that he was open to a temporary measure to keep the economy going until he had a chance to shape a “permanent” solution.
Romney also said that heading off the looming tax hikes and spending cuts could be done in a piecemeal way. House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, has suggested he wants a fiscal “grand bargain” to address the country’s ills.
Government analysts say that current fiscal policies, if unchanged, would likely cause a recession.
“Right now we have an economy in trouble, and someone who spent their career in the economy is more suited to help fix the economy than someone who spent his life in politics and as a community organizer,” Romney told Time magazine.
The comments – the first since Obama personally questioned Romney’s experience at Bain Capital – largely overshadowed a Washington speech that offered the presumptive Republican presidential nominee’s first extensive plans for the nation’s education system.
Asked whether he’d welcome a focus and debate on his career at Bain, Romney said: “Well, of course. I’d like to also focus on his record.”
OBAMA CAMPAIGN RESPONSE
The president believes the vouchers drain resources from public schools and do not help most students, James Kvaal, policy director for the Obama campaign, told reporters. “Vouchers, which might serve a small number of students, will do nothing for the vast majority of students left behind in public schools,” he said.
Romney’s criticism of Obama, the president has embraced some reforms that started as Republican ideas, according to Michael Petrilli, executive vice president at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a Washington-based think tank.
Through their “Race to the Top” competition, for example, they have encouraged states to lift caps on the number of charter schools, a policy that Romney supports as well.
“It doesn’t leave a lot of room for Mitt Romney to draw contrast with President Obama,” Petrilli said.
The Obama campaign responded by releasing comments from a series of Republicans – high-profile Romney supporters Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell and Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, among them – praising Obama’s education policies.
Obama’s campaign said the budget Romney signed into law as Massachusetts governor cost 14,500 teachers, librarians and school police officers their jobs.
“Not exactly the record of a job creator,” campaign spokesman Ben LaBolt said. “Mitt Romney gave a vague, detail-free speech this morning on education and confirmed, as if there were any doubt, just how far back he would take us.”
The Washington Post and The Associated Press contributed to this article.