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A Closer Look at Romney's Vision for School Choice

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UPDATED

On Wednesday, presumptive Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney unveiled his agenda for the nation's schools. It's a document that focuses extensively on expanding school choice—its centerpiece is probably a proposal to allow parents to use federal anti-poverty and special education funding for private school vouchers, as well charters and online courses. (See my colleague Alyson Klein's overview of the full plan.)

I recently took another pass through Romney's proposals and looked in more detail at his vision for school choice. A couple takeaways and tidbits:

Campaign 2012

  • Voucher recipients using federal funds would be required to take state tests.

Romney's plan says that to "ensure accountability," students who use federal Title I and spec-ed funding to attend private schools "will be required to participate" in state testing systems.

Requiring that voucher recipients, or private schools accepting voucher students, take part in the same state tests as public school students is controversial in some quarters of the private school choice community. Critics say those mandates infringe on the rights of private schools. Others, however, see the requirements as a way to set standards for voucher programs and provide families with valuable information on whether the private schools available to them are up to snuff. Romney apparently finds this argument to be a convincing one.

Even so, the lack of consensus on mandatory testing in voucher programs is evident from looking at policies across states. Nine out of 17 voucher programs require some form of testing for voucher students—either state or national norm-referenced tests, according to the the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, an Indiana organization which supports private school choice. Three out of 10 tax-credit scholarship programs require one of those forms of tests.

  • Access to vouchers could vary by state.

Romney says he would work with Congress to overhaul the law to allow federal funds to be used for vouchers. But his plan also makes the proviso that students would be able to use that money for private school costs "if permitted by state law."

Presumably, Romney's team is here referring to the restrictions in some state constitutions—known as "Blaine amendments"—that bar or impede the use of public money for religious schools or institutions. It's unclear whether other state laws could prevent states from signing up for the Romney voucher plan. (I've contacted Romney's team for clarification.)

  • "Open enrollment" policies would vary by district.

Romney wants to require states receiving federal Title I and spec-ed funding to increase access to online education, expand charter schools, and adopt new open-enrollment policies. Open-enrollment policies—basically, allowing students to transfer to districts outside where they live, without restriction—are in place in 17 states, according to one recent count.

But open enrollment has also been opposed by some districts, which see it as a loss of local control over their schools. (See a story I wrote last year that looks at a debate in Michigan about open enrollment.) Some state laws allow districts to turn away students for various reasons, including concerns about overcrowding. Romney's plan says that states would be required to adopt open enrollment policies to allow students to transfer to school systems outside their boundaries if the alternate districts "have the capacity to serve them."

Given Romney's focus on school choice, it's probably fitting that the foreword to his policy is written by former Florida Jeb Bush, a Republican who was a major champion of vouchers during his two terms in office. (See a related item on Politics K-12 on the past praise that Romney and Bush have directed at Obama on education issues. They strike a decidedly different tone in the pages of Romney's new policy document.)

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