Mitt Romney gestures while speaking at the Latino Coalition's Annual Economic Summit. (Evan Vucci/AP)
Under Romney's plan, $26 billion in annual federal education money that flows to districts based on the number of low-income and special needs students they have would instead follow each individual child. Parents would decide which school—including online ones—to send the funds to. If states allow it, children would also be permitted to attend private schools with the public funds.
This voucher approach to public education is embraced by several Republican governors, including Bobby Jindal and Chris Christie, both rumored as possible vice presidential picks for Romney. Teachers' unions vehemently oppose it, though, saying the plan drains public money away from public schools and does nothing to improve failing schools.
Romney, who until now has barely touched on public education issues, framed the plan in his speech to the Latino Coalition's Annual Economic Summit in Washington as a way to improve the country's high school graduation rate and comparatively low math performance. The plan can level the education playing field so that poor and minority kids are not forced to attend the often dismal schools in their neighborhoods, he said.
"Here we are in the most prosperous nation, but millions of kids are getting a third-world education," Romney said. "And, America's minority children suffer the most. This is the civil rights issue of our era."
On a conference call with reporters before his speech, Romney's domestic policy director Oren Cass acknowledged that schools would not always be able to take every child who wants to attend them under the plan. High-performing charter schools around the country often hold lotteries to admit only a fraction of students who apply, and there's reason to believe that the best school in any given area will have to turn away some low-income students who want to attend with their voucher. But Cass said Romney would also encourage more quality charter schools to start up to offer more choices.
The National Education Association, the largest teachers' union, said in a statement that Romney's plan shows "disdain" for the public school system and criticized his education record as governor of Massachusetts, when he opposed more funds for early education or smaller class sizes.
Romney's plan largely abandons the punishment portion of President Bush's 10-year-old No Child Left Behind Act. Under the law, schools can be forced to make staffing changes and face other sanctions if their students' test scores don't progress adequately. A Romney administration would strip those sanctions, and leave how to improve those schools up to the states. Schools would still be required under federal law to disclose their students' average standardized test scores.
In his speech, Romney painted President Barack Obama as beholden to union leaders and afraid to challenge the education status quo. "The president can't have it both ways: He can't talk up reform while indulging the groups that block it," he said. While Obama does not support voucher programs, he has angered teachers' unions before by pushing to evaluate teachers based on their students' test scores and encouraging the creation of more charter schools. His education reform agenda has been praised by Christie and other Republicans.
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