Romney education plan is radical

“Emphasizing high-stakes tests and charter school expansion, Obama has simply continued — or accelerated — the policies handed down by George W. Bush in his signature education reform, No Child Left Behind,” writes education historian Jonathan Zimmerman in the Los Angeles Times. By contrast, Mitt  Romney’s education plan is revolutionary, writes Zimmerman.

Romney has put forth a plan that could completely transform the way Americans organize and fund public schools. And that’s why it has little chance of being implemented any time soon.

Romney proposes letting poor and disabled students use federal funds to enroll in new schools — private schools or out-of-district public schools.

. . . forget all our effusive rhetoric about education as the great equalizer, the ticket out of poverty and so on. American education is profoundly unequal because it is still circumscribed by local district lines — and still financed, mostly, by local tax dollars.

While President Obama’s education policies “don’t change the bottom line,” Romney “has suggested that kids in a poor public school district should be allowed to enroll in a wealthier one.” That’s a huge change in the status quo.

Romney “hasn’t provided any real details,” Zimmerman writes. And don’t hold your breath waiting for upper-middle-class suburbanites to welcome low-income students.

 Yet the plan does remind us of the radical potential of school vouchers, which are today blithely dismissed by liberals as a right-wing plot to gut public education. But vouchers once drew significant support from the left too, including from such luminaries as Harvard sociologist Christopher Jencks and urban muckraker Jonathan Kozol.

To Jencks, who crafted a 1970 report on the subject for Richard Nixon’s White House, vouchers could help equalize American education if public as well as private schools were required to admit a certain fraction of low-income students. And the vouchers would have to be distributed progressively, with the poorest kids getting the biggest tuition assistance.

I don’t see Mitt Romney as a wild and crazy guy. If elected, I don’t think he’ll challenge local control of schools. If he did try to push through a radical voucher plan, he’d face a lot of opposition from suburban Republicans, though he might get support from urban Democrats. I’m not betting the farm on this one.