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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.” 

But even if Saltman and Bulkley are right that Romney’s performance in Massachusetts vis a vis education has limited relevance to his potential presidency, his general attitudes about education policy during the 2003-2007 governorship are still worth noting. According to Paul Toner, current president of the Massachusetts Teacher Association (MTA), Romney’s education record was decidedly unimpressive. “Romney cut education funding deeply while he was governor,” Toner notes. “In 2003 and 2004, Massachusetts cut spending on K-12 education more than any other state. He also slashed funding for public higher education by a quarter during those years.” 

Overall, Toner says, “he accomplished little in the education arena while he was governor…though he made a series of distracting proposals that never passed, such as seeking to require low-income parents to attend parenting classes if they wanted their children to be enrolled in full-day kindergarten programs.” The cuts were drastic, and the political moves – like trying to force parents to attend parenting classes – helped mask the fact that there was relatively little substance to his education policy. 

Labor: What About the Unions?  

Perhaps the most important insight to be gained from Romney’s record in Massachusetts has to do with his treatment of teachers' unions. In fact, his relationships with Massachusetts teachers' unions were remarkably consistent with his current campaign rhetoric. As Toner explains, “Romney had a closed door policy when it came to meeting with the MTA and nearly all the other organizations representing teachers and administrators. He took guidance on education policy from people with agendas that did not serve students and public education, not from educators.” In other words, Romney was far more interested in hearing from business and industry leaders than from educators themselves. 

For Toner it was clear that, “Romney was extremely anti-union.” He recalls a Boston Globe reporter calling the Massachusetts Teacher Association in late 2004 for comments on a statement Romney had just made at an editorial board meeting. According to Toner, Romney had said, “We should put together all the [education] stakeholders at the table, but not the unions. Individual teachers, yes, but not the unions.” 

And true to form, the unions were largely excluded by Romney’s administration. Toner characterizes the Romney administration as both, “secretive and exclusive. For example, when he held press conferences on education issues, he barred representatives from the MTA and other education organizations, such as [the] Massachusetts Association of School Committees, from being in the room. We had to wait out in the hallway and then piece together what had been said in order to formulate a response.” 

Toner points out that this “anti-unionism ran so deep, [Romney] made the absurd and unsubstantiated claim that ‘the gap in test scores between minority and white students would close when minority leaders realize their long political alliance with teachers’ unions isn’t serving black and Hispanic students’” to the Associated Press in 2006. It’s crafty rhetoric – except that the very state Romney was governor of disproved that logic. As Toner points out, it is a “well-documented fact that minority students’ test scores are significantly above the national average in Massachusetts – a highly unionized state.” 

Whatever flip-flopping Romney can be accused of doing on social issues ranging from abortion to LGBT rights, his hostility to the teachers' unions has never wavered – and he’s continuing to hold strong. Just a few days ago, Romney made comments at a fundraiser that were captured by MSNBC. In them, he reconfirmedhis plans to dramatically diminish the scope of the US Department of Education except for use as a tool for union-busting. It is no wonder the NEA and AFT have come out so strongly against his campaign. 

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.

Still, as Katrina Bulkley of Montclair State points out, there is little reason to suspect that Romney’s position on privatization will be substantially different from President Obama’s. “I think it’s a matter of degree between them rather than fundamentally distinct positions,” Bulkley suggests. “What [Romney] did in Massachusetts is pretty consistent with the evolving Obama administration’s position.” But she notes, “it’s highly unlikely that this will be a core, defining discussion for Romney,” because not all of it will have great appeal to the Republican base. 

Like Obama, Bulkley says, “[Romney] really wants to support students going on to higher education. This is something that costs money. That is losing policy with a big chunk of the Republican Party.” Moreover, she says, like Obama, Romney “has been an advocate of early childhood education. But in the Republican Party at this moment, that is not something you want to spend a lot of time talking about because it sounds like he favors expanding the federal role.” 

Ken Saltman of DePaul agrees, noting that “what Romney would represent [versus Obama] is simply a more aggressive approach – more aggressive privatization, more anti-union activity – but essentially the same. He would likely support even more use of high stakes standardized testing.” And like Obama, Romney would in all probability work to “undermine university and state controls over teacher certification by fostering the privatization of it through for-profit companies like the American College of Education, which has already begun pushing for online and on-site teacher certification in Chicago.” 

Romney is in a difficult position, Bulkley says, because he will have to balance his ideas about school reform between the far right/Tea Party and traditionally conservative wings of his party. She notes that while one large segment of the base “wants a Republican presidential candidate who will say that the federal role should be to get out of the way as much as possible… [i.e.] those who want to eliminate the Department of Education,” others support a more nuanced approach. Rather than calling for the end of No Child Left Behind or the dissolution of the Department of Education, these are voters who continue to value high-stakes testing and increased teacher accountability measures, while questioning, in Bulkley’s words, “the appropriateness and the capacity of the federal government to be the entity most directly pushing it.” The federal government should have a role to play, they feel, but it should be regulated in a way that allows states a great deal of autonomy. 

As a result, it’s unlikely we’ll get many more specifics about educational policy from the campaign, according to Bulkley. “The more he talks about education, the more he will make one of those two groups unhappy,” she says. “There’s no reason for him to focus on education in this context… I think he will continue to be strategically vague, and use broad Republican rhetoric about accountability, high expectations and the importance of quality and choice – but he will resist attempts to turn those broad ideas into concrete policy proposals.” 

Forging Ahead 

As the campaign gets further underway, Bulkley believes the ideological convergence between Democrats and Republicans on the issue of corporate-based school reform will make it difficult for either side to use the issue to distinguish itself. They will need to come up with something, she suggests, to draw bright lines when asked about education in the debates -- but because the distinctions are, as Bulkley put it, “shades of gray,” not black and white divergences, there may be reason to worry that the candidates will simply offer platitudes on the issue, rather than engage in robust debate.  

Perhaps most disturbing, however, is the fact that equitable funding has largely disappeared from the national conversation about education policy in both parties. As Saltman points out, rather than coming up with ways to distribute school resources more fairly, both Obama and Romney are casting school reform purely in terms of increased accountability and more successful outcomes. The problem is that such a framework subsumes the complex issue of high quality education under the zero-sum, win/lose logic of the free market, even though our schools are not business – nor are our children commodities. 

Clearly, it no longer matters to the politicians that everyone receives equal opportunities to succeed. Social and economic class need not figure into interpreting standardized test scores anymore, and the broader context of our children’s lives is given little heed. Instead, poor test scores are the result of bad teaching alone, and punitive teacher regulations continue. The most disturbing impact of this trajectory in US education policy? The non-existent incentive to improve the public schools themselves. Instead, “losers” are taken out of the game, just as losing businesses go under. Meanwhile, the needs of individual communities and their children seem not to carry any weight at all. 

 

 

Kristin Rawls is a freelance writer whose work has also appeared in the Christian Science Monitor, GOOD Magazine, Religion Dispatches, Killing the Buddha, Global Comment and elsewhere online.