How would a President Romney tackle education? An answer requires keeping three things in mind. First, education is a minor issue in this election and would be a secondary concern for a Republican president focused on economic growth, the deficit, tax cuts, and reversing the Affordable Care Act.
Second, there are few stark differences between Mitt Romney and President Obama when it comes to education. Both support more transparency, endorse charter schools, support more intensive teacher evaluation and differentiated pay, and insist that something needs to be done about persistently low-performing schools. However, Romney's stance differs from Obama on vouchers, treatment of for-profit providers, and the appropriate federal role in education.
Third, some caution is required in divining Romney's core beliefs. Indeed, many conservatives have fretted that his campaign lacks a clear policy agenda. Romney also has long been a moving target on policy and ideology. Some will recall that, when he challenged Sen. Edward Kennedy in 1994, he famously tried to run to Kennedy's left--endorsing Roe v. Wade and insisting he'd be a stronger proponent of gay rights than Kennedy. Today, Romney's stance on those issues is quite different. In particular, Romney's nomination of Wisconsin Congressman Paul Ryan seemed to signal willingness to embrace aggressive cuts in federal spending and bold proposals to reshape the federal role.
When trying to predict future actions, it's useful to ask what a candidate has done when previously in office. Romney's education record as Massachusetts governor from 2003 to 2007 looks a lot like President Obama's has. Romney inherited a strong reform tradition--built around standards, testing, and accountability. He maintained and strengthened this commitment by adding a science test to the state's accountability system and supporting high school exit exams. He also pushed a controversial plan to mandate parenting classes for parents in low-performing districts seeking to enroll their kids in kindergarten.
In terms of school choice, Romney vetoed a bill to place a moratorium on opening new charter schools, and the number of charter schools increased modestly, from 46 to 59. He unsuccessfully championed merit pay for the top third of performers and for math and science teachers, offering bonuses of up to $5,000. He pushed for addressing low-performing schools with strategies that are quite similar to those favored by the Obama administration, including making it easier to replace principals and teachers in such schools or turning them into charters. So, where would a President Romney likely come down on some of the key education questions he'd face as president?
The 2011-12 GOP primary season featured talk of, in the words of Rep. Michele Bachmann, "turning out the lights" at the Department of Education. When Romney ran for Senate in 1994, he supported eliminating the Department of Education (one of the planks in that year's Contract with America). Today, his view is quite different. "I've been a governor and seen the impact that the federal government can have holding down the interests of the teachers' unions and instead putting the interests of the kids and the parents and the teachers first. I see that the Department of Education can actually make a difference," he said during a debate in South Carolina in 2007.
As president, Romney would be working with many Hill Republicans who want the Department of Education to go away. But things aren't that simple. Even Hill Republicans are split on this score, and many Tea Partiers also have voted to maintain or increase spending on the major federal education programs like student loans, special education, and Title I. More to the point, Romney's team knows that public support for abolishing the Department of Education is low, which makes a serious effort to dismantle it unlikely.
In Washington today, the big conservative-liberal divide on school reform is less about what to do and more about the appropriate federal role. …