News Column

Romney Hones Pitch on Education Policy

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As the governor of Massachusetts from 2003 to 2007, Mitt Romney championed aggressive education policies later embraced by the Obama administration and by other states.

But for most of his second run at the Republican presidential nomination, voters have heard little about his education record in Massachusetts or initiatives that Mr. Romney was largely unable to sell to that state's Democratic-controlled legislature.

Instead, in a high-profile May 23 speech on education, Mr. Romney spoke at length about school choice, pushing a bold--but administratively tricky--plan to let disadvantaged students and those in special education take their federal aid to any campus, including a private school.

Mr. Romney, who last week secured enough delegates to clinch the 2012 GOP nomination, is pushing hard to distinguish his education policies from those President Barack Obama espouses. The former business executive has floated market-based proposals that appeal to a conservative electorate, and leveled criticism of teachers' union influence on school policy--and with the Obama administration.

At the same time, Mr. Romney continues to share some administration policy priorities, particularly Mr. Obama's fondness for charter schools and insistence on tying teacher evaluation in part to students' outcomes on standardized tests, both of which have rattled union leaders.

Mr. Romney's decade-long evolution on education issues also has seen him move away from some of the most extreme positions taken by some in his party, including abolition of the U.S. Department of Education and repeal of the No Child Left Behind Act, which he nonetheless would like to overhaul.

The policy overlap between Mr. Romney and the man he is seeking to replace comes as no surprise to William H. Guenther, the president of MassInsight, a nonpartisan research organization in Boston that advised Mr. Romney on K-12 issues during his tenure as governor. He places Mr. Romney among a set of "liberal and conservative education reformers" focused on a combination of "excellent goals and no excuses."

"Governor Romney's education reform packages were ahead of their time," said Mr. Guenther, a registered Democrat. "Putting aside the lightning-rod issue of school choice, there's a lot of common ground between the candidates."

Gubernatorial Priorities

Although Mr. Romney's May 23 speech, given in Washington to the Latino Coalition's annual economic summit, touched only lightly on his Massachusetts record, he highlighted the state's strong showing on national tests in the education chapter of his 2010 book No Apology. He noted that, by his third year in office, the state's 4th and 8th graders scored first in the nation on both math and reading on the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

The Romney campaign repeated those figures when President Obama's camp questioned the former governor's commitment to education issues after the recent speech.

But others in the Bay State say that Massachusetts was a national K-12 leader before Mr. Romney took office, and that his policies had little to do with its success.

"We were on a rising course, and he held the course during that time," said S. Paul Reville, who serves as secretary of education to Democratic Gov. Deval Patrick and has been appointed to the state board of education by both Republican and Democratic governors.

"What proposals he had were more ideologically driven ... than any deep thinking about what it takes to close achievement gaps and improve education for all children," Mr. Reville said.

Like Mr. Obama as president, Mr. Romney as governor sought to promote rigorous academic standards. He persuaded the Massachusetts school board to add science to the list of tested subjects under the state's accountability plan. And he vigorously defended the state's system of high school exit exams as a graduation requirement, a policy put in place by his predecessors.

When New Bedford Mayor Scott Lang decided in 2006 to let the local high school give diplomas to all students--even if they hadn't passed the state-mandated exams--Mr. Romney threatened to withhold education aid to the district.

Mr. Lang "came around to my point of view," Mr. Romney later wrote.

The governor also pushed for Massachusetts to be tested as a separate "country" on the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, or TIMSS, assessment in 2007, said Robert Costrell, who served as Mr. Romney's top education adviser when he was governor and is now an adviser to his campaign. Minnesota is the only other state that took that step; both states stacked up well against international competitors.

But most of the items on Mr. Romney's agenda fell flat in a legislature dominated by Democrats.

For instance, Mr. Romney put forth a package of proposals in 2005 and 2006 that would have offered $5,000 bonuses to teachers who were among the state's top third of performers. New math and science teachers would have also been given extra pay, along with educators who led Advanced Placement courses in those subjects.

The governor also pushed to tie teacher evaluation in part to student performance--a policy that the Obama administration made a cornerstone of the president's Race to the Top competitive-grant program.

And Mr. Romney's vision for school turnaround includes many of the principles that the Obama administration incorporated into a supercharged version of the School Improvement Grant program, unveiled in 2009. For instance, Mr. Romney wanted to make it easier for superintendents to remove underperforming teachers and principals.

He also wanted to let districts convert perennially struggling schools into charters, and to offer grants to help low-performing schools partner with outside experts.

In addition, he put forward a plan to require parents in the lowest-performing districts to attend parenting classes in order to enroll their children in full-day kindergarten. That idea met with resistance from some parents, who found it to be insulting and targeted at low-income people, according to published reports.

Legislative Relations

Mr. Romney testified before the Massachusetts legislature on his package of reforms, recalled Mr. Costrell, but the appeal didn't drum up much support. Meanwhile, some state lawmakers remember him as disengaged from the legislative process and unwilling to collaborate.

"I don't have good memories, to say the least," said Rep. Patricia Haddad, a Democrat, who chaired the Massachusetts House education committee from 2005 to 2008 and now serves as the state House's speaker pro tempore. "I felt like he wanted me to do what he wanted me to do. It wasn't, 'Let's talk and find a balance.' "

Those views were echoed by Paul Toner, the president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, an affiliate of the 3.2 million-member National Education Association.

"We would find out about his most recent education policy through press releases," said Mr. Toner. He said the governor never "consulted with people in the field doing the job working with children."

But David P. Driscoll, who served as state education commissioner during Mr. Romney's administration, described him as a collegial executive who put a major focus on improving outcomes for students.

"Public education was definitely a priority for him. He was very supportive of it," said Mr. Driscoll, who was named schools chief by the state board--not by Mr. Romney--and is a registered Democrat. He said Mr. Romney did a lot of outreach on his agenda, including joining Mr. Driscoll in a series of forums across the state on education issues.

"I found him very good to work with," added Mr. Driscoll, who is now largely retired and does some consulting work.

Scholarships, Immersion

In a heartfelt moment in his education speech last month, Mr. Romney touted the John and Abigail Adams Scholarship program, which he started in Massachusetts and which gives students who score in the top 25 percent of their districts on state exams free tuition at the state's public universities. The scholarships do not cover other costs, such as fees and room and board.

"I got more hugs on Adams Scholarship day than I did at Christmas," Mr. Romney said.

But the program wasn't without its critics. A disproportionately small number of the state's minority students or students from disadvantaged families qualified for the grants, according to a March 2006 study of the program, done on behalf of the Civil Rights Project, then at Harvard University, by Donald E. Heller, who at the time was the director of the Center for the Study of Higher Education at Pennsylvania State University in University Park.

Mr. Costrell disputed the premise of the study, saying that it examined only students who were eligible for the scholarships--not those who actually took advantage of the funding. He noted that only a handful of students from the state's wealthiest school districts actually enroll in the program, compared with other districts with higher levels of poverty.

As governor, Mr. Romney also fought vehemently against bilingual education--a stance he reiterated time and again on the campaign trail this year, including in a series of debates with his rivals for the GOP nomination, though not in his speech in front of the Latino Coalition.

When Mr. Romney ran for governor in 2002, Massachusetts was considering a ballot initiative to put a stop to bilingual education, one of a number of such measures around the country backed by Ron Unz, a former businessman and a political activist. Support for the initiative became a major part of Mr. Romney's campaign. He used it to draw distinctions between himself and his Democratic opponent, Shannon O'Brien, who, like the state's GOP acting governor at the time, Jane Swift, opposed the initiative.

Mr. Romney "really found this was a good wedge issue," said Roger Rice, the executive director of Multicultural Education, Training, and Advocacy, of Somerville, Mass. "It was all about Mitt advancing his career."

But Mr. Romney, who writes in his book that he helped speed the implementation of Question 2, the ballot initiative, which voters adopted, believes he made the right move.

"Time and again, I heard from parents in the immigrant community who applauded the decision to scrap bilingual education in favor of English," he wrote.

Changing Views

Like many in his party--whose members in Congress overwhelmingly backed the NCLB law championed by President George W. Bush in 2001--Mr. Romney's views on education have gone through an evolution.

As a candidate for the U.S. Senate in 1994, running against Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, Mr. Romney said he wanted to eliminate the Education Department. He also advocated policies that are still big parts of his K-12 agenda, including expanding vouchers and charter schools.

But, as a contender for the Republican nomination in 2008, Mr. Romney said he had been on the wrong track as a Senate candidate. He counted himself a supporter of the NCLB law--and during a May 15, 2007, debate even identified the law as an area in which his own views differed sharply from those of the GOP base, which by then had begun to clamor for a more limited federal role in K-12 policy.

During the 2012 campaign, Mr. Romney has been much quieter on No Child Left Behind, praising its focus on testing and accountability while calling for turning back most decisionmaking to states.

He hasn't yet unveiled a comprehensive proposal for reauthorization of the law, the current version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. But the bare-bones plan he sketched out last month is consistent with the general direction of some Republicans in Congress, such as Rep. John Kline of Minnesota, the chairman of the House education committee--and amounts to a major rollback of the accountability system at the heart of the law.

The Romney plan would rely chiefly on transparency as the lever for school improvement, calling on states to craft A-F grading systems to gauge schools' performance, as well as create "report cards" that would include information such as state results on NAEP.

Mr. Romney's position on the law shouldn't be taken as an indication that he doesn't think low-performing schools need to be turned around, said Martin West, the K-12 co-chair of his education advisory team, in a May 29 interview on the "On Point" public-radio program.

Instead, the candidate believes "the federal government is poorly positioned to specify what needs to be done at the local level," said Mr. West, a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

The shift isn't surprising, said Frederick M. Hess, the director of education policy studies for the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington think tank.

"It completely reflects the center of gravity in the Republican Party," said Mr. Hess, who writes a blog for Education Week's website. "There's no way to tell if Romney's heart is where it was in '08. The balance of forces has shifted on this issue, and he has clearly followed suit."

In many ways, Mr. Romney has a challenge on education similar to one he has on health care, said Andrew J. Rotherham, a co-founder of Bellwether Education Partners, a Washington nonprofit group that works to improve outcomes for low-income students.

Mr. Romney won enactment of a health-care plan in Massachusetts that was seen as a model for President Obama's 2010 health-care law.

But he can't talk about his past priorities, said Mr. Rotherham, who served as an education aide under President Bill Clinton, because such measures would smack of overreach at a time when the GOP wants to see a slimmer federal government.

School Choice, Teachers

Mr. Romney's marquee proposal this time around would allow parents to use federal aid from the $14.5 billion Title I grant program for disadvantaged students and the $11.6 billion in state grants for special education at other public schools in their districts or states, at charter or private schools, or for online courses and tutoring.

The proposal raises a lot of tricky implementation questions, said Michael Griffith, a senior policy analyst with the Education Commission of the States, in Denver. For one thing, he said, the federal funds would likely only cover a fraction of the cost of educating a child at a private school, so local officials would have to elect to direct state and district dollars as well.

Meanwhile, Mr. Romney, like the president, calls for expanding high-quality charter schools. And, like Mr. Obama, he wants to combine a myriad of teacher-quality programs into a single funding stream.

Mr. Romney is seeking to scrap the requirement that all teachers must be highly qualified as defined under the NCLB law and to prod states to revise their teacher-evaluation policies--something that Mr. Obama is also pushing in a plan offering states waivers of key NCLB mandates.

Mr. Romney wants to expand the $20 million D.C. Opportunity Scholarship program for students in Washington, a program whose funding Mr. Obama has proposed killing.

On higher education, the GOP candidate favors bolstering the role of the private sector, which he contends has been hurt by the administration's decision to end the Federal Family Education Loan Program and to ensure that all loans originate through the Education Department.

Advising the Candidate

Mr. Romney's long roster of education advisers reads like an invitation to a reunion of President George W. Bush's appointees on K-12 issues. Eleven of Mr. Romney's 18 education advisers--most notably, former U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige--served in the Bush administration in some capacity or were appointed to education panels by Mr. Bush.

See Also

President Barack Obama has used cash and executive authority to make a deep impact on national education policy--and earned critics on both sides of the political aisle. Check back next week for an Education Week story on Obama's Education record.

But the person most closely associated with the 43rd president's NCLB law--Margaret Spellings--is missing from the list. Ms. Spellings, who helped craft the law as White House domestic-policy adviser and then served as education secretary in Mr. Bush's second term, had been part of the Romney team earlier this year. She bowed out because she felt the work conflicted with her role as a top education adviser to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

But Ms. Spellings continues to have warm feelings about Mr. Romney's education policies, particularly his record in Massachusetts.

"He was one of the best governors in the country on education," she said in interview.

Library Intern Amy Wickner contributed to this article.

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