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Eyes on 2012: Romney Introduces Education Agenda, Says Little About Early Ed

Published:  May 24, 2012

In a speech yesterday to the Latino Coalition’s Annual Economic Summit in Washington, D.C., Mitt Romney outlined his K-12 education platform, which includes expanding school choice, offering parents more access to information on school performance, and consolidating federal teacher quality programs into block grants to states. Though Latino voters have demonstrated strong support for pre-K programs, Romney did not discuss early education in either his speech or in an education policy white paper released by his campaign.

Romney’s teacher quality proposal is similar to the plan proposed by Rep. John Kline (R-MN) in his set of bills for the renewal of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), which would merge teacher quality programs into a new block grant program. The Romney camaign’s 40-page white paper does not specify whether these changes would entail overall funding levels for teacher quality programs increasing, decreasing, or remaining constant.

“I will reduce federal micromanagement while redoubling efforts to ensure that schools are held responsible for results,” Romney said. President Obama, too, has frequently proposed program consolidation, in order to make funding more efficient. Both candidates support tying teacher evaluation to measures of student achievement, an idea which has been a centerpiece of the Obama administration’s Race to the Top competitive grant program.

Many of Romney’s education proposals would shift power from Washington back to state and local governments. His plans appear to be tweaks to ESEA, the latest iteration of which is known as No Child Left Behind, not a total overhaul of the current law, nor a dramatic reduction in the size of the federal Department of Education, as some of Romney’s Republican primary opponents -- and, at moments, Romney himself -- proposed.

Romney and Obama are competing for Latino voters, a group that values education among its top voting priorities, which makes it no surprise Romney chose this particular event as the venue for a speech on education. He was silent about one part of his record that could be off-putting to the Latino community: In 2003, Romney ended bilingual education and instituted English-only instructional programs in Massachusetts schools.

A 2006 poll found Latino voters strongly support pre-K programs, but both Romney and Obama have largely bypassed the topic thus far in the campaign, despite signs that Latino access to early education has suffered during the recession. Latino preschool enrollment dropped to 48 percent in 2009, down from a peak of 53 percent in 2005. Many experts suspect it has yet to recover.

The Romney campaign white paper does not address pre-K, child-care funding or full-day kindergarten -- all issues he did support at times as governor of Massachusetts from 2003 to 2007. As governor, Romney supported both budget cuts and funding increases for state pre-K. Preschool enrollment increased overall during his years in office. 

One strange move during yesterday's speech came when Romney chose to highlight Massachusetts’s John and Abigail Adams Scholarships, a program he created that awards free tuition at state colleges and universities to students with top scores on their state high school exams. The scholarships have been criticized for mostly benefiting students with white, affluent, and suburban backgrounds, a critique supported by a 2004 Boston Globe analysis.

As governor, Romney was viewed as a standards-and-accountability reformer. In Massachusetts he advocated for teacher merit pay, charter schools, and for giving principals more leeway to hire and fire teachers. Though Romney did not push any major private school voucher initiatives in Massachusetts, he supports vouchers and spoke approvingly yesterday about the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, a voucher program that President Obama has repeatedly tried to defund in his budget requests.

Romney also announced his team of education advisors. One of his K-12 co-chairs has experience with early childhood: Nina S. Rees, a veteran of the Bush administration and currently a senior vice president at Knowledge Universe, a private early-childcare center operator that owns other providers, such as KinderCare. The other K-12 co-chair is Martin R. West, an assistant professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and executive editor of the journal Education Next.

Rod Paige, former U.S. Secretary of Education under President George W. Bush, will be a special advisor. Another committee member is Jim Peyser, who engineered school reform efforts in Massachusetts as chairman of the state Board of Education from 1996 to 2003, overseeing the launch of the state’s charter school sector.

Check back for more analysis on both Romney and Obama’s plans for education as the candidates continue to outline their plans.


UPDATED 5/25/2012: A previous version of this post listed an incorrect title for Nina S. Rees. Rees is a senior vice president at Knowledge Universe, not an executive vice president, as the post previously stated.

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