Mitt Romney called for an expansion of parental choice in America's school system Wednesday, pivoting to a subject he has discussed little so far in his presidential campaign.
Mr. Romney spoke in Washington, taking his message on education to a city that is home not only to his electoral rival – President Obama – but also to one of the nation's important experiments with school vouchers.
He criticized Mr. Obama for failing to pursue deeper education reforms, saying the president has been "unable to stand up to union bosses, and unwilling to stand up for kids.”
“As president, I will pursue bold policy changes,” said Romney. “Dramatically expanding parental choice, making schools responsible for results by giving parents access to clear and instructive information, and attracting and rewarding our best teachers – these changes can help ensure that every parent has a choice and every child has a chance.”
The speech comes as both Obama and Romney, the presumptive Republican nominee, are starting to vie intensely for the middle-ground swing voters who will decide the election in key states. Education ranks far behind jobs and the economy on voters' priority list, but for many voters it's been on par with things like health care and gas prices, among the everyday issues they care about.
Romney's speech also coincides with fresh signs that the US is struggling to keep up with other advanced nations on schooling.
For example, US eighth-graders are doing a bit better in science than they were two years ago, but 7 in 10 still are not considered proficient, the Education Department said this month in its latest report card, known as the National Assessment of Educational Progress.
Obama has made headlines about education this year more often than Republican candidates, in part because he's been coaxing Congress to extend low-interest loans for college students getting subsidized federal aid. Since being elected, Obama has also promoted a "race to the top" in which states compete to improve their education systems, in return for extra federal dollars.
During the Republican primaries, the Education Department came up during debates as an agency ripe for budget cutting or even outright elimination. Now, as Romney is shifting toward general election mode, he's talking up ideas that he says can make the US education system stronger.
The Romney campaign released a series of bullet-point proposals alongside his speech, with many ideas framed around the appeal of parental choice and control. Its statement called for "tying federal funds directly to dramatic reforms that expand parental choice, invest in innovation, and reward teachers for their results instead of their tenure."
- Giving school choice to low-income and special needs students. He would make Title I and IDEA funds portable "so that eligible students can choose which school to attend and bring funding with them. This plan will allow the student to choose from any district or public charter school, or a private school where permitted by state law, or to use funds toward a tutoring provider or digital course."
- Providing incentives for states to increase choice.
- Expanding the District of Columbia's Opportunity Scholarship Program, reversing Obama's "efforts to eliminate this popular and effective program."
- Providing better information for parents, as a tool to hold school districts accountable for student results.
- Attracting and rewarding strong teachers using flexible block grants. States getting the grants would need to promote teacher quality with teacher tenure and evaluation reforms.
- Eliminating some certification requirements that may prevent talented individuals from entering the teaching profession.
- Simplifying federal aid for college finance, including new efforts to help borrowers have useful information about the costs and their likely future earnings.
In polls over the past decade, Americans have shown openness toward the idea of school choice.
A 2002 poll by ABC News asked, "Would you support or oppose having the government give parents in low-income families money to help pay for their children to attend a private or religious school instead of their local public school?" Some 50 percent of respondents supported the idea, although fewer gave that answer if it would mean less money money for public schools.
A study of a long-running school voucher program in Milwaukee, by the nonpartisan School Choice Demonstration Project at the University of Arkansas, concluded this year that the program has largely helped student performance, while not having adverse effects on the overall public school system.
The nation's high unemployment rate means that the election season's larger policy battle will be about things like jobs and taxes. But the contest over education policy has now been joined, and both Obama and Romney know voters see schooling as intertwined with the nation's economic challenges.