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Does Mitt Romney Have an Education Platform?

Beyond breaking the unions, what kind of education policy can we expect from a Romney presidency?
 
 
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If you’re looking to understand what Mitt Romney might do to education as president of the United States, a good place to start is with his own words. Back in March, Mitt Romney told Fox News' Bret Baier that his primary educational goal if elected to the presidency would be to weaken teachers' unions. “The role I see that ought to remain in the president's agenda with regards to education,” Romney announced, “is to push back against the federal teachers' unions.” His promise? To diminish the role of the federal government in education policy, except when it comes to union-busting.

This denunciation of teachers' unions is nothing new for the Right; it’s a plank that has long figured in Republican campaign rhetoric and policy, starting with Ronald Regan. Though Reagan did engage in moderate rhetoric on unions from time to time on the campaign trail, the same moderation was rarely reflected in policy once he was elected. In a nod to his Hollywood roots, Reagan’s 1980 campaign included a pledge of support for the Screen Actors Guild, the actors' union. And Cold Warrior that he was, he predictably lauded Polish workers who unionized in defiance of the Soviet Union. 

Yet overall, Reagan’s relationship with labor in the United States was overwhelmingly hostile. His dispute with the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Association was perhaps the defining union policy of his presidency. He broke that union apart by firing anyone who failed to comply with his imperative to stop striking. And he certainly opposed America’s two largest teachers' unions, the National Association of Educators (NEA) and the AFL-CIO-affiliated American Federation of Teachers (AFT). Reagan’s anti-unionism set the stage for his party’s contemporary commitment to union-busting, and that included open opposition to the two teachers' unions. 

Ever since, Republicans have worked to demonize – and weaken – both NEA and AFT. This culminated in 2004, when President George W. Bush’s education secretary Rod Paige absurdly called the NEA a “ terrorist organization.” So, it isn’t surprising that Romney has chosen to demonize the two unions in his fight to secure his party’s presidential nomination. But as an educational platform, union-bashing’s pretty thin. The sound bites may play well with the Republican base, but what else do we know about Romney on education? He hasn’t made the issue a central component of his campaign -- so where can we look to find out what President Romney's vision for American education might be? 

Past Governance: Does Massachusetts Matter? 

Given that Romney served as governor of Massachusetts for four years, it is tempting to look to his education record while in office for insights into what he might do as president. But Ken Saltman, professor of educational policy studies and research at DePaul University, cautions against reading too much into Romney’s work in that state. Noting that the contemporary Republican Party is generally far more conservative than the population of Massachusetts, he suggests it is unlikely that Romney will be able to replicate his education policies there at the national level. 

Katrina Bulkley, associate professor of educational leadership at Montclair State University, agrees. She notes that the legacy of excellence in public education throughout much of Massachusetts is quite deeply entrenched, making it difficult for Romney to substantially alter the cultural imperative for good schools there. She tells AlterNet, 

“Massachusetts was a very high-performing state, but a big part of that has nothing to do with education, but with the population of Massachusetts. Massachusetts overall is wealthy and highly educated. Also, it has a long history of strong commitment to public education. I do not mean to suggest that Massachusetts is perfect by any means, but there is a real foundation there for public education… [B]efore he became governor, Massachusetts was already a pretty high-performing state [and] it has continued to be a really high performing state following his exit as governor.”