WASHINGTON—Presumptive GOP nominee Gov. Mitt Romney called today for making federal funding for special education and disadvantaged students portable—meaning the money would follow students to any school their parents choose, including a private school.
Under his proposal, parents could also choose to use the funds under Title I and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act at charter schools, for online courses, or for tutoring. Title I is funded at $14.5 billion this year, and IDEA is funded at $11.6 billion, and any proposal to radically shift the use of that money would be almost certain to face a host of administrative, budgetary, and political hurdles from the Congress and statehouses on down.
Romney, who unveiled his education agenda at the Latino Coalition's Annual Economic Summit in Washington Wednesday, is also calling for an expansion of the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship program, which President Barack Obama has sought to eliminate. He would also make it easier for high-quality charter schools to expand, a position that the Obama administration has also embraced.
"I will expand school choice in an unprecedented way," Romney said in the speech. "Too many of our kids are trapped in schools that are failing or simply don't meet their needs."
When it comes to the No Child Left Behind Act, Romney would dismantle the accountability system at the heart of the law, and he calls for schools to create "report cards" with a variety of information about student progress. Schools would have report scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress—known as the nation's report card. There also would no longer be federal mandates for improving schools under his plans.
"No Child Left Behind helped our nation take a giant step forward in bridging [the] information gap," Romney said. And he said he would do what President Barack Obama could not - get Congress to pass an overhaul of the law. "As president, I will break the political logjam that has prevented successful reform of the law. I will reduce federal micromanagement while redoubling efforts to ensure that schools are held responsible for results."
Romeny's general approach on accountability appears to be in line with what Republicans on Capitol Hill support, including U.S. Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., the chairman of the House Education and the Workforce Committee. The panel passed an ESEA reauthorization bill earlier this year that hasn't yet made it to the floor of the House.
But Cynthia G. Brown, the director of education policy at the Center for American Progress, a Washington think tank, worries that transparency and school choice is not going to be enough to prod schools to move the needle on student achievement.
"What he's taking out of the equation is any kind of governmental action for failure to serve these kids well," said Brown, who served in the U.S. Department of Education under President Jimmy Carter.
The accountability proposals also prompted a host of question from Sandy Kress, a lawyer in Austin, Texas, and a former White House aide who played a key role in working with Congress to craft the NCLB law during President George W. Bush's tenure.
"What would the expectations be for states and districts?" Kress wanted to know. "What would the expectations be for the money in terms of the report cards and for the responsibility for learning? What will the expectations be for the rigor of the standards and the consequences? That's unclear."
Still, Kress is a fan of Romney's ideas when it comes to school choice—and strongly supports Romney's presidential bid.
"I really appreciate the muscular response on choice, and I think it's appropriate," he said.
In his speech, Romney said he would also seek to block-fund teacher quality money. That proposal appears similar to what Obama has called for in his budget requests, which have sought to combine federal programs aimed at improving teaching and leadership into a single funding stream. Romney is also aiming to knock down barriers to the teaching profession, in terms of state certification requirements.
The wide-ranging speech also attacked Obama for shying away from what Romney sees as some of the boldest reforms - including the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship program - because of pressure from the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers.
"President Obama has been unable to stand up to union bosses - and unwilling to stand up for kids," Romney said. "President Obama can't have it both ways. He can't talk up reform, while indulging groups that block it. He can't be the voice of disadvantaged public school kids, and the protector of special interest."
That criticism doesn't hold up, said Charlie Barone, the director of federal legislation for Democrat for Education Reform, a political action committee in New York City that supports candidates who embrace charter schools and other policies.
"It's a good speech if you've living on another planet for the last four years," Barone said. He pointed to policies the Obama administration has supported that have angered unions, including its support for merit pay, and pushing states to raise caps on charter schools.
Republicans in Washington have long been attracted to proposals to use federal funds for school vouchers, and in that context, Romney's proposal is not unusual, Michael J. Petrilli, a vice president at the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation. He described the Republican candidate's school choice proposal as "an interesting idea," though he said it could be difficult to implement, for a variety of reasons.
Federal per-student Title I and special-education funds, on their own, are probably not sufficient to cover many private school costs, though they could help if combined with state voucher money, Petrilli said. The broader challenge is that federal funding formulas currently do not distribute Title I and other funds in ways that make it easy to give it out individually among qualified students.
On the other hand, if the federal funding stream could be overhauled so that each qualified student was given a "backpack" of funding to carry to any school, it would probably increase many disadvantaged students' access to at least a slice of that funding, Petrilli said.
Romney is unveiling his proposal in the wake of the passage of major voucher expansions in a number of states, including Indiana and Louisiana, over the past two years, measures that were championed by Republican governors and fiercely opposed by many Democrats.
Vouchers continue to meet strong resistance in some states, particularly those where political control is divided between the parties. Romney's proposal could help voucher advocates circumvent those prevailing political roadblocks, said Malcom A. Glenn, a spokesman for the American Federation for Children, a Washington organization that backs private school choice.
"In places where there are still entrenched interests standing in the way of reform, having a plan supported by federal funds would increase the coalition of support, which would be a good thing," Glenn said.
While the president has been much stronger than many Democrats in supporting public school choice measures, Glenn said, his opposition to vouchers presents a clear contrast with the presumptive Republican nominee. Glenn was enthusiastic about Romney's pledge to expand the District of Columbia's scholarship program and have it serve as a national model.
"The president has consistently stood in the way of that program, and we've been very disappointed by that," Glenn said. "We'd be extremely excited by any effort to expand it."
But a key special education advocacy group, which represents students who would be a major beneficiary of the proposed shift, quickly rebuffed Romney's idea.
The proposal would add to the budget woes districts have experienced as federal stimulus money has tapered off and state contributions have shrunk, said Lindsay Jones, senior director of policy and advocacy services at the Council for Exceptional Children.
"School districts around the nation have seen deep cuts in funding over the last few years as our nation confronts a recession, increased needs, and declining revenues. These cuts have impacted districts' ability to provide services to children in need—further cuts won't help," she said.
Common Core, College Loans
Romney's campaign staff said he is supportive of the Common Core State Standards, but thinks the Obama administration has gone too far in encouraging states to adopt them. Obama made college- and career-ready standards a requirement for states seeking waivers from the NCLB law. And the administration gave states credit for embracing rigorous, uniform standards under the Race to the Top education reform competition.
Those policies "effectively are an attempt to manipulate states into" adopting common core, said Oren Cass, Romney's domestic policy director on a call with reporters prior to the speech.
When it comes to higher education, Romney favors bolstering the role for the private sector, which he contends has been decimated by the Obama administration's choice to scrap the Federal Family Education Loan Program and ensure that all loans originate through the U.S. Department of Education.
"We welcome private sector participating instead of pushing it away," Cass said.
And even though Romney's speech didn't touch on the DREAM Act, the bipartisan Development, Relief and Education of Alien Minors Act came up at the venue anyway. It would provide citizenship for some undocumented who enlist in the military or go to college. Romney has not supported it.
Romney's speech was interrupted by a college student from New York named Lucy, an undocumented immigrant. "Governor Romney," she yelled, twice, before the crowd broke into applause to drown out her words. She was ushered outside and joined a small group of protesters bearing signs that read "Veto Romney, Not the DREAM Act."
Assistant Editor Sean Cavanagh and Staff Writers Lesli Maxwell and Nirvi Shah contributed to this report.
Photo: Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney addresses the Latino Coalition's 2012 Small Business Summit on Wednesday in Washington. (Mary Altaffer/AP)