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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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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.