What Would a President Romney Do on K-12?

What would a Mitt Romney presidency look like when it comes to K-12? Now that it’s more of a horse race than it was before I took my October hiatus, this is a more interesting question. I walk through the likely implications of a Romney win in the most recent Phi Delta Kappan (see here). But, for those in a hurry, here are a couple highlights:

Big Picture: The safe bet is that a President Romney would keep much of the same substantive agenda as Obama, but would do so with a lighter touch, less spending, and more emphasis on choice. In particular, a Romney administration is more likely to differ on the appropriate federal role in pushing those policies. As Harvard professor and chief Romney education adviser Marty West says, “[Romney] believes the federal government is poorly positioned to specify what needs to be done at the local level.”

Romney embraces NCLB’s core testing and transparency requirements and wants a reauthorization that holds fast to those, while jettisoning much of the law’s balky, intrusive “remedy cascade” and other prescriptions. The tension is that Romney has pledged both to reduce the federal footprint and to use federal levers to push states to offer more choice. How to do both of those things will prove a key challenge. When it comes to flexibility, the Obama administration’s widespread use of NCLB waivers has appalled conservatives and is noxious to any Republican worried about Washington overreach. But it also stands as a mouth-watering precedent and invitation for an administration eager to pursue its agenda without having to woo or wait upon Congress.

Spending: Romney’s campaign document, “A Chance for Every Child,” states, “Unfortunately, like a man with a hammer that sees every problem as a nail, President Obama’s policy response to every education challenge has been more federal spending,” with little in the way of results. Rather than boosting funding, Romney has pledged to “focus on ensuring that money is spent well.” Indeed, the campaign has vowed to pursue across-the-board cuts in domestic spending. However, at the first presidential debate Romney promised he “would not cut education funding.” Given that he’s pledged to cut taxes, balance the budget, and get rid of the deficit, a President Romney would have a hard time squaring this circle.

Common Core: The Obama administration’s enthusiastic embrace of the Common Core through Race to the Top, the ESEA “blueprint,” and in granting NCLB waivers, has helped encourage 40-odd states to adopt the reading and math standards. In doing so, though, it has lent the whole exercise a strong whiff of federal involvement and made it increasingly partisan. Campaign adviser Marty West has declared that a President Romney would seek to terminate support for the assessment consortia. However, Romney is more likely to select a Common Core-friendly Secretary than a skeptic. This would mean two things. First, the exit of the Obama team may mollify conservative legislators and state board members, helping Common Core proponents in the scramble to fund implementation and adopt new assessments. Second, Romney officials would be able to reassure Republicans about the Common Core, which may actually be more helpful at this stage for the effort’s prospects.

School Choice: Perhaps the sharpest distinction between the Obama administration and a prospective Romney administration lies with the issue of school choice. Romney’s major proposal would expand school choice by essentially turning $15 billion in Title I funding and $12 billion in IDEA funds into “vouchers” that eligible students could spend to attend any district, charter, or private school (state law permitting) or for tutoring programs or digital courses. This Reagan-era proposal poses an opportunity to broaden notions of public school choice, but faces several challenges. These include the very modest per-pupil sums it would entail, the question of how to push states to comply, and the likelihood that critics would contend that the plan would functionally steer federal funds away from some of the nation’s poorest schools.

By the way, if you didn’t catch last week’s AEI debate between the Romney and Obama edu-spokesmen (Marty West for Romney and Jon Schnur for Obama), you can catch their clash here. It’s the only time during the campaign that the two camps will have debated education in Washington — and it made me wish all debates were as substantive and civil as theirs was.

– Rick Hess

This blog entry first appeared on Rick Hess Straight Up.

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