Romney: A weaker federal government . . . except in education?

As a social studies teacher, there are few things I love more than the presidential debates. I love that the challenger can stand on the same stage as the leader of the free world and make snarky comments! I love how the audience promises to be silent! I love the procedure of it – the moderator uses a timer! The candidates have notes! The questions are not released before hand! In the era of canned sound bites and identical stump speeches (seriously, check it out) it is enormously refreshing to hear the candidates speak about domestic issues without teleprompters or handlers. We know what Obama would do with education because, in some way or another, we have all felt the impact of Race To The Top and NCLB wavers over the past four years. Let’s take a deeper look at Romney’s ideas on education.

First of all, they’re pretty similar to the president’s. Romney praised the work of Arnie Duncan in last night’s debate and expressed his support for the work the Department of Education has done with “raising the bar” for states and local school districts by providing incentives at the federal level. However, he was also adamant about the key role state and local government play in making decisions about schools. Romney suggested a few different ideas but let’s look at two: 1) federal funding “following” students from one school to another and 2) grading schools, as Florida under Jeb Bush did, on an A – F scale inorder to “give parents options for their kids.”

We have a decentralized education system in the United States. In the same way local government, often school boards, are the main decision-makers for US schools, state and local governments also raise most of their schools’ funds. Only about 10 cents of every dollar spent on schools actually comes from the federal government. Additionally, federal funds – unlike state and local funds – are given out on a per student basis. Federal monies are often attached to specific programs like Title 1 or legislation like IDEA and therefore those funds would be really difficult to tease out on a student by student basis. This gets tricky because federal funds are more frequently linked to students with special needs or circumstances (disabilities, poverty, ELL, etc.) – students are not receiving equal amounts of money from the federal government. Typically this isn’t a problem: a student with Down syndrome has very specific needs that make her more expensive to educate than her classmates without IEPs. While this is certainly not equal it is fair; it make sense. But what happens to the special education teacher that supports the student with Down syndrome on a one-to-one basis when another child’s parents in the same school choose to move him to a school across town? As someone who has spent 7 of my 10 years in a charter school I am certainly for some school choice, but I think money must be moved at a local, not federal, level.

I am also extremely wary of a federal grading system for schools. I deeply believe parents and students should be the evaluators of the education they receive (see my reflection on teacher evaluation and the possible role of parents here). While districts and potentially states might be able to release comparisons of various schools within their jurisdictions, comparing across state lines in a simplified letter grade system seems like creating a letter grade system for athletes across all sports. Lebron James and Gabby Douglas are both world class athletes but for hugely different reasons and in vastly different sports. Can you image one rubric that would effectively encompass all of what makes them exceptional at their respective sports? And now consider one rubric for all schools across the United States. Would the grade be linked to test scores? If so, which tests? ACT or SAT? Then what does that mean if my kid is in elementary and I want to know if my daughter’s teacher is any good?

What I find so surprising about Romney’s proposals is how much they rely on the power of the federal government. He’s a Republican for petesake! What happened to returning power to the states? I certainly think the federal government can play an important role in raising the bar for states who are reluctant to takle education reform – as Race To The Top did and as Common Core implementation will – but that role should be limited. Let’s leave funding and evaluation largely in the control of the people who have the most to gain or lose from their children’s schools.

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