On Education, Romney Seeks Distance from Obama — and Bush

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Mitt Romney participates in a 6th grade language class at Universal Bluford Charter School on May 24, 2012 in Philadelphia, Penn.

In a speech at the Latino Coalition’s annual economic summit in Washington on Wednesday, May 23, Mitt Romney called the U.S. education system a failure. Every child deserves a quality education, he said, particularly minority students who are consistently underserved. Fixing the system, according to Romney, is the “civil rights issue of our era.”

That message — as well as the name of his plan, “A Chance for Every Child” — is reminiscent of George W. Bush’s legacy education-reform effort, No Child Left Behind (NCLB). But the substance of the presumptive Republican presidential nominee’s education plan is anything but. While Bush’s reforms instituted broad federal oversight and accountability, Romney says he would give more control to states and to parents.

It’s a small political space for Romney to take up. He must distance himself from the much criticized, largely unsuccessful policies of Bush, while at the same time offering a plan to fix America’s troubled school system that is distinct from that of President Obama. The result, outlined in a 35-page white paper released this week, is long on generalizations and short on specifics and occupies a narrow band of the education-policy spectrum that Romney can claim as his own.

Romney’s plan is largely a return to traditional, pre-Bush Republican education policies. While he says he would back the goals of NCLB, he would gut the law’s key provision that requires poorly performing schools to undergo overhauls or lose federal funding. In its place, Romney would have schools issue report cards on their progress, so parents could easily see how well their child’s school was performing. If parents don’t like what they see, Romney says, he would give them more options. The most revolutionary component of Romney’s plan is that he would tie federal funding for low-income and special-needs students to individual children, so wherever a child goes — be it to another public school, a charter, a private school or an online academy — the money would follow.

But neither report cards nor school choice is likely to have much impact. It’s unclear how Romney’s report cards would differ from the school reports already required by NCLB. It’s possible he intends to evaluate schools by different metrics, but it seems likely his report cards would be based on the same standardized-test data that are already publicly available to parents and anyone else looking to evaluate a school’s progress. School choice sounds great in theory, but there is often no better option for a student who would like to transfer. Additionally, by tying funding to individual children, a struggling school that a child leaves would have even less money to work with.

The other components of Romney’s plan are mostly familiar — increasing the number of charter schools, improving teacher-evaluation systems and holding teachers responsible for students’ success — and are already tenets of the Obama Administration’s education policies. Romney also used the default Republican line that Democrats are in bed with the teachers’ unions, saying that Obama “has been unable to stand up to the union bosses.” But the Obama Administration has had a more distant, more love-hate relationship with the unions than its Democratic predecessors. The Administration, led by Education Secretary Arne Duncan, has done a number of things that have angered the unions, including praising the mass firings of teachers in Rhode Island, using competitive grants, supporting charter schools and tying teacher evaluations to student performance. In response, the National Education Association adopted a resolution titled, “13 Things We Hate About Arne Duncan.”

Though Romney’s plan largely rests on old ideas, much of what he would propose remains unknown. At a fundraiser last month, Romney said he would reduce the size of the Education Department or fold it into another agency. He makes no mention of that in this plan. It’s possible that a more ambitious agenda is still up his sleeve. Either way, Romney made it clear on Wednesday that he sees a dire problem. “Millions of kids are getting a third-world education,” he said.

Kayla Webley is a staff writer at TIME. Find her on Twitter at @kaylawebley, on Facebook or on Google+. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.

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