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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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Though much else remains murky, this much is crystal clear: If Romney wins office, unions – and the people they represent, including educators – can expect to be further marginalized and more resolutely excluded from the tables where educational policy gets made. 

Big Business: Aggressive Privatization 

Since the Reagan presidency, Democratic and Republican presidents alike have supported a drastic overhaul to the United States system of education through privatization. They have done this, first, through the proliferation of charter schools – public schools that are not subject to many of the regulations and accountability measures that apply to other public schools, and which often rely on private funds to provide some of their most basic services (like bus transportation). Increasingly, “school choice,” rather than school equity, has become the primary talking point for officials of both parties – the idea being that giving parents the right to choose their children’s schools allows education to function much like the free market. In this vision, then, schools can be judged largely based on how many parents choose them; eventually, some schools will be “winners” and some will be “losers,” and the remedies proffered to the “losers” tend to be punitive rather than instructive. For example, as a result of George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind policy, school closure – not school improvement – is seen as a legitimate solution  to “fixing” struggling schools. 

On his campaign site, Romney makes it clear that he is a champion of the kinds of corporate-based school reforms that have become fairly uncontroversial in both the Republican and Democratic parties in recent years. The short copy on education begins, 

“Mitt Romney believes that the long-term strategy for getting America’s economy back on track is ensuring a world-class education for American students. Global competitiveness begins in the classroom. In order to achieve this goal, students must have the skills to succeed in the workforce, ensuring that the promise of opportunity in this country remains strong.” 

Note that this rhetoric suggests that purpose of schooling is to create workers. Though common in both parties, Saltman says it represents a startling break from the history of progressive education in the United States. That is, preparation for the workforce has largely displaced any talk of preparing students for self-governance in a democracy. 

The site also suggests that Romney is fully on-board with other forms of corporate reform, listing high stakes testing, teacher “accountability measures,” charter schools and school choice as priorities. All of these tactics, of course, create simplistic ways of judging a school’s success that can be graphed in a single regression line and mimic some market analysis: Did the students perform well on tests? Did the teachers perform up to par? Are parents choosing this school or avoiding it (i.e., has this school marketed itself sufficiently to parents?)? Is this a failed school or a successful one? They are, distressingly enough, measures that both sides of the aisle appear to be embracing with nearly equal fervor these days.

In fact, there is only one major educational policy issue on which the Democrats and Republicans still publicly disagree: Vouchers. Vouchers provide public money to fund private school tuition for parents who want to opt out of the public school system. In some states, there is even talk of expanding vouchers to include homeschools. Most Democrats still oppose vouchers, while in the Republican party, vouchers are widely championed. Romney does not explicitly mention vouchers on his Web site, and he has said little about the topic during his campaign. But if elected president, Romney would clearly encounter significant pressure from within his party to support school vouchers.