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Dividing Lines: Romney and Obama on Private School Choice

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Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney unveiled a series of education proposals Wednesday, which cover a lot of ground but are heavy on private-school choice, as my colleague Alyson Klein explains over at Politics K-12.

Romney wants to allow parents to use federal Title I and special-education funding to pay for a variety of school options—including private school costs, meaning vouchers. And on that point, the contrast between Romney and Obama, who opposes private school vouchers, is quite sharp.

Campaign 2012

While many Republicans have praised Obama for his support for charters, linking teacher and administrator evaluations to performance, and other education policies, the president has shown no interest in redirecting public funds to private school choice. He recently rankled Congressional Republicans, for instance, by proposing to cut off funding for the District of Columbia voucher program.

Mike Petrilli, an executive vice-president at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, and former top education official in George W. Bush's administration, finds a lot to like about having federal dollars follow children, for public and private schools, as he explains in an online essay. But Petrilli's less fond of mandating that states offer a list of choice options in order to receive federal Title I and spec-ed funding. Those top-down mandates from Washington rarely work the way they're supposed to, writes Petrilli, who cites the problems in administering the No Child Left Behind Act as an example of why they don't.

The title of Petrilli's essay sums up his view: "The Romney education plan: Replacing federal overreach on accountability with federal overreach on school choice."

Education Sector's Anne Hyslop offers a different perspective. She praises pieces of Romney's proposal but says it wrongly assumes that choice—rather than polices for turning around low-performing schools and helping struggling students—will act as a cure-all.

"By using choice as the only mechanism to improve school quality, a child's success will still depend on their ZIP code and family background," she writes, adding: "For these students—the ones left behind in dropout factories and chronically low-achieving schools—what is their future? Romney's education plan would continue the standards and assessment movement, but drop the accountability. States and districts would not have to intervene in any ineffective schools to address low achievement, high dropout rates, or large achievement gaps. And that's unacceptable."

But Rick Hess, of the American Enterprise Institute, finds much of Romney's blueprint appealing, particularly its emphasis on school choice, education innovation, and increasing the number of school providers. Its "pluses are real and substantial," Hess writes on his Ed Week blog. But he also says parts of Romney's plan sound too prescriptive, and like not much of a departure from the the policies of the current White House occupant:

"Especially in K-12 schooling, where 90% of the money is provided by states or localities, it can be tough for conservatives to talk about addressing our educational challenges without seeming to imply that every idea requires new federal funds or programs. Romney's plan is far less explicit on this score than he'll need to be. This is doubly true given that some of his talking points, such as his promise to drive down college tuition, imply grand new vistas of presidential authority. And Romney's proposal to require states to lift charter caps, embrace open-enrollment, and adopt expansive approaches to virtual schooling in order to qualify for federal aid is practically Obamaesque as far as expanding the federal reach when it comes to state education policy."

In an interview Wednesday, Petrilli told me that the GOP candidate's emphasis on promoting transparency, rather than accountability, in judging school performance, represents a "milestone" and perhaps the clearest sign yet of the overall Republican party's decisive turn away from its one-time support for the No Child Left Behind Act.

The NCLB law was approved with bipartisan congressional support and signed into law in 2002 by President George W. Bush, a Republican. But over time, Republicans in Washington have grown increasingly weary of the law's tough sanctions and accountability measures, particularly amid complaints about federal overreach in education, Petrilli noted.

"The Republican party has officially moved on from the No Child Left Behind era," said Petrilli. Increasingly, GOP backing for the law looks like "an historical anomaly," he said.

"We're seeing a return to federal education policy, circa 1998," he told me. "There are no prominent Republicans at the federal level arguing for accountability and intervention in failing schools" through measures like the eight-year-old federal law.

Another Romney proposal—to create incentives for states to adopt open-enrollment policies and eliminate caps on charter and online schools—is potentially significant, if implemented in a tough-minded way, Petrilli said. Many states and districts, at least on paper, have open-enrollment policies to increase school choice, though school systems often resist accepting students from neighboring districts, citing concerns about overcrowding or loss of local control. Efforts to compel districts to accept students often meet strong resistance, particularly in areas where there are significant numbers of GOP voters, Mr. Petrilli said.

"These are very contentious programs, and they've very unpopular with Republicans—particularly suburban Republicans," Petrilli said.

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