By Jay Mathews
Poor Mitt Romney. He appoints a splendid group of education policy advisers, smart people with great ideas. Then he learns that he has to give a speech explaining how he differs from President Obama on schools when those same advisers have spent their careers making that nearly impossible.
The two major parties mostly agree on education policy. This has been true for a generation. This is good for schools, but during presidential campaigns it makes speechwriters miserable. Here is an example from Romney’s education speech last week to the Latino Coalition’s Annual Economic Summit:
“Dramatically expanding parental choice, making schools responsible for results by giving parents access to clear and instructive information, and attracting and rewarding our best teachers — these changes can help ensure that every parent has a choice and every child has a chance.”
That’s a nice sentence. The only flaw is that it sums up the views of the Obama administration pretty closely. There is a new emphasis on transparency rather than accountability in the Romney plan, but it is too esoteric for most voters.
Republican and Democratic presidential candidates have been happily copying each other since a group of Democratic governors (including Bill Clinton) started the school accountability movement in the 1980s and several Republican governors (including George W. Bush) joined in. Many of Romney’s advisers, like Nina Rees and Bill Evers, have been a part of that bipartisan effort, but don’t crow about it.
Instead, the two parties pound each other with an education issue that makes them look tough to their most partisan supporters. That convenient weapon is vouchers, tax-supported scholarships for students who want to attend private schools. Obama has cut funds for a voucher program in the District, so Romney embraces it. “It will be a model for parental choice programs across the nation,” he said in the speech.
The split doesn’t affect the bipartisan approach to schools much because vouchers have no chance of ever expanding very far. There aren’t nearly enough available spaces in good private schools to meet the demand. Any significant growth in vouchers would lead to heavy government interference in private schools and kill any allegiance conservative Republicans had to it.
The most significant change in U.S. education, and the most likely to give parents more choice, is the growth of public charter schools. There Romney and the president are soulmates. “Charter schools or similar education choices must be scaled up to meet student demand,” Romney said. Obama has pressured several states to raise or eliminate quotas on charters.
In the education speech, Romney tried one more standard GOP ploy to put some ideological distance between himself and the Democrats: He attacked the teacher unions. Romney said they “oppose even the most common-sense improvements.”
That should get him a few Pinocchios from my Fact Checker colleague Glenn Kessler. The unions have become more willing to rate teachers and tolerate charters as their younger members embrace such changes. The Obama administration has ignored the unions on these issues, accelerating the transformation.
One sign of how difficult it is to portray teacher unions today as reactionaries is the quote Romney used to prove their obstinance. He said an unnamed “longtime president of the American Federation of Teachers” once said: “When schoolchildren start paying union dues, that’s when I’ll start representing the interests of children.”
No teacher union leader today would ever utter such words. The person to whom the quote is usually attributed, the late AFT leader Albert Shanker, probably didn’t, either. It first appeared unsourced in the Meridian (Miss.) Star in 1985, and so far there is no proof he said it.
It is unlikely Romney will be saying much more about schools this year. The economy is the issue. That’s good. Leaving education out of the debate will reduce partisan impediments to getting things done.