What's Wrong with Romney's Massive Federal School Voucher Proposal and What Should Congress Do Instead?

Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney speaks at a Colorado Conservative Political Action C
Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney speaks at a Colorado Conservative Political Action Committee (CPAC) meeting in Denver, Thursday, Oct. 4, 2012. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

In this election cycle, Mitt Romney's desire to turn Medicare into a voucher program has gotten a lot of attention. Much less discussed is his desire to do likewise with the two largest federal K-12 grant programs to states and localities - Title I of ESEA for low income students and IDEA for students with disabilities.

Specifically, in the first debate, Romney said, in part, "I want ... all federal funds [for these two programs], instead of going to the ... state or to the school district [to] follow the child and let the parent and the child decide where to send ... their student."

This change would be radical. As indicated in Romney's May 23, 2012 education plan, the federal government would stop allocating about $25 billion/yr. of Title I and IDEA funds - "two-thirds of baseline federal spending on K-12 education" - directly to the states and localities, and, instead, reallocate it directly to the students. They could use it to attend any in-state public school, charter school, i.e., publicly funded, but privately managed, or, if state allowed, any other private school that they choose. Although Romney opposes "overly prescriptive federal policy mandates," his proposal would apparently require Congress to mandate that states accept loss of direct Title I and IDEA grants as a condition of receiving federal education funds indirectly, even though the indirect funds would be reduced to the extent students went to privately managed schools.

By encouraging the exodus of vast numbers of students from publicly-operated schools, Romney's voucher plan would radically reduce the number of students for whom states and localities would be responsible. This would interfere with the historic role of public schools as the preeminent provider of education for American children - what the Supreme Court has called "perhaps the most important function of state and local governments."

Further, America relies on schools controlled by public officials elected by us - the citizens - to inculcate America's critical democratic values and determine the appropriate curriculum. But in charters and other privately managed schools, public control of decisions on those critical matters, and other aspects of operation, is lost to private entities. Likewise, parents lose their right as citizens to influence school policy through their elected representatives and have officials protect them from mistreatment. As the number of privately managed schools increased and public schools decreased, the proposal would reduce the reach of local control of schools and citizens' rights.

The plan relies on greatly expanding the number of charter schools. Perhaps recognizing that comprehensive 2009 Stanford University research shows, on average, charter schools are worse than traditional public schools, it proposes to expand only "high-quality charter schools." But it does not present evidence to answer basic questions. Are these schools substantially better than regular local public schools? Does their effectiveness extend to students learning critical thinking, problem-solving and communications skills? Or, is their "high-quality" merely a result of relatively high scores on often low-level, state standardized tests?

Even if the schools were shown to be genuinely high quality, the plan presents no evidence there are enough providers of charters, and appropriately skilled and knowledgeable leaders and teachers for new ones, to establish thousands more such schools in the forseeable future. Without those resources, it would be impossible to provide high quality choices for the intended millions of Title I and IDEA students. Given the very limited availability of such resources, it seems extremely unlikely such choices could be provided.

In short, Romney's proposed massive voucherization of Title I and IDEA is radical, unproven, unworkable and reduces democratic control.

Instead, what Congress needs to do is enact policies, programs and funding to help states and localities turn around low-achieving schools by doing what works. Fortunately, we already know that 1) it's possible to turn around low-achieving schools, 2) successful turnarounds focus on five common elements to turn themselves around - leadership, instructional improvement, curriculum, school climate, and parent and community involvement and support , and 3) they implement common practices to carry out each element.

Specifically, Congress needs to:
  • Leadership Academy. Establish a cutting-edge School Leadership Academy and regional centers to train experienced principals to lead turnarounds of low-achieving schools.
  • Teacher Preparation. Reauthorize and fund teacher preparation programs to provide at least one year of closely supervised clinical training, including preparing teachers to teach higher-level thinking and communications skills.
  • Support for Families. Provide Title I funds for parenting skills and adult literacy programs to support students' learning at home and intensive adult mentoring programs for very low-achieving students without parents available.
  • State Capacity. Provide Title I funds to help state education departments build staffs' knowledge and skills to assist turnarounds.
  • School Needs' Evaluations. Fund professionally-trained, state level review teams to independently evaluate low-achieving schools' needs and recommend improvements.
  • Leading Indicators. Require all Title I-funded schools to report leading school improvement indicators, such as average teacher time/week spent in peer collaboration, as well as disaggregated student achievement data.

Congress should not use federal money and power to terminate states' and localities' historic responsibility, and control, of public education for a large and vulnerable portion of Americans. It should reject the proposed massive, unproven, and unworkable voucher proposal. Instead, it should finally reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act by focusing on helping states and localities do what works to turn around low-achieving schools - implement the common elements of success.