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Giuliani's School Choice Rhetoric

Last night’s Republican presidential debate in Miami, sponsored by the Spanish-language television broadcaster Univision, was aimed at addressing issues important to Hispanic voters, a key constituency in swing states such as Florida. The discussion yielded an all-too-rare question on how the candidates would improve K-12 education, and specifically, how they would address the dropout crisis, which is especially prevalent in the Hispanic community.

While none said anything new, or particularly surprising, the seven participating candidates at least provided a chance to compare their proposals–and see how comfortable they are talking about education issues.

Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, fresh off his endorsement from the New Hampshire affiliate of the National Education Association (does support from a teachers' union help or hinder a Republican?), had a nice line, suggesting the federal government launch “weapons of mass instruction,” including enhanced art and music to help motivate students and stimulate their creativity.

“One of the reasons we have kids failing is not because they're dumb, it's [that] they're bored. They're bored with a curriculum that doesn't touch them,” Huckabee said.

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney reiterated his support for education positions near and dear to many Republicans, including accountability, performance pay, merit scholarships, and English immersion for English-language learners. And he touted his support for rigorous standards, citing his own state’s traditionally strong performance on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP).

And … once again, former New York City Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani used a debate as a platform to showcase his support for expanded school choice.

“We should empower [parents] by giving them the money, giving them scholarships, giving them vouchers, let them choose a public school, a private school, a parochial school, a charter school, homeschooling,” he said. “Let's give the power to the parents, rather than to the government bureaucrats. And we will turn around education within three years.”

As an education reporter interested in specifics, I’m wondering how long Giuliani can continue to talk about “choice” as a panacea for all the ills facing American education without offering any substantive details. If he’s really going to “turn around” education in “three years,” as he puts it, I’d like to know exactly how.

Would Giuliani push for a federal private school voucher program for low-income students in struggling schools, similar to the Promise Scholarships that President Bush proposed in his fiscal year 2008 budget request (which, incidentally, were immediately rejected by the Democratic Congress)? Would he establish a program to help districts establish their own choice programs? (also proposed by Bush, also Dead On Arrival with congressional Dems).

If Giuliani is serious about using the issue of school choice to bolster his conservative credentials, and appeal to constituencies that he says don’t traditionally back Republicans but support school choice, such as African-Americans and Hispanics, he’s gonna have to offer more than just rhetoric. He’s going to have to actually propose a plan – and preferably, explain how he’ll pay for it and sell it to a Democratically controlled Congress.

Or, at the very least, he’s going to have to say something else--anything else--about K-12 education. Otherwise, it might begin to look like he doesn't really understand the issues at play here, at least compared with his former-governor rivals (Romney and Huckabee) who can (and do) at least point to their records on education.

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