Until Wednesday it was easy to overlook Mitt Romney’s theme of the week — education. With all the news coverage, you’d be forgiven for thinking the topic was Bain. But then Romney delivered an impressive speech. (If you are counting, this is the third solid outing after Liberty University and Iowa addresses.)
The setting was the Latino Coalition’s Annual Economic Summit, suggesting Romney is going to reach out to the Hispanic electorate with conservative policies (jobs, school choice) and not simply immigration reform.
He framed the issue: “Let’s not kid ourselves – we are in the midst of a National Education Emergency. The only reason we don’t hear more about it is because our economic troubles have taken our national attention away from the classroom. But if unemployment was where it should be and home values were going up, there is no question that the crisis in American education would be the great cause of this campaign.”
His solution begins with school choice, which happens to provide a clear contrast with the president. He said:
I will expand parental choice in an unprecedented way. Too many of our kids are trapped in schools that are failing or simply don’t meet their needs. And for too long, we’ve merely talked about the virtues of school choice.
As President, I will give the parents of every low-income and special needs student the chance to choose where their child goes to school. For the first time in history, federal education funds will be linked to a student, so that parents can send their child to any public or charter school, or to a private school, where permitted. And I will make that choice meaningful by ensuring there are sufficient options to exercise it. . . .
Instead of eliminating the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program as President Obama has proposed, I will expand it to offer more students a chance to attend a better school. It will be a model for parental choice programs across the nation.
That put him on the side of poor kids, letting the president stand with the teachers’ unions.
There was a nod to federalism. (“States will continue to design their own standards and tests”), but in his scheme the feds would require schools to give “information that parents can use to make informed choices.” And he told the audience, “There are currently 82 programs in 10 agencies that spend $4 billion on teacher quality. As president, I will consolidate these programs, and block grant them to states that adopt innovative policies.”
He hinted at college tuition reform. (“Students must have access to a wide variety of options that will give them the skills they need for successful careers. We must stop fueling skyrocketing tuition prices that put higher education out of reach for some and leave others with crushing debt.” ) Hmm, then why mimic Obama’s tuition subsidy gambit?
All of that aside, most of his speech was a jaunty, Chris Christie-like skewering of the teachers’ unions. A sample:
The teachers unions are the clearest example of a group that has lost its way. Whenever anyone dares to offer a new idea, the unions protest the loudest.
Their attitude was memorably expressed by a long-time president of the American Federation of Teachers: He said, quote, “When school children start paying union dues, that’s when I’ll start representing the interests of children.”
The teachers unions don’t fight for our children. That’s our job. And our job keeps getting harder because the unions wield outsized influence in elections and campaigns. . .
The President can’t have it both ways: He can’t talk up reform, while indulging the groups that block it. He can’t be the voice of disadvantaged public-school kids, and the protector of special interests.
President Obama has made his choice, and I have made mine: As president, I will be a champion of real education reform in America, and I won’t let any special interest get in the way.
We have to stop putting campaign cash ahead of our kids.
He then reviewed his own education reforms as governor “a four-year, tuition-free scholarship to the state college of their choice” for top students. He then wrapped up with a touching account of surprising top performing students with their scholarship awards.
The speech drew praise from conservatives. (The Wall Street Journal editorial board wrote: “Mr. Romney has the moral and political high ground on vouchers, and we hope he keeps it up.”) More telling was the relative quiet from the White House. Really, what defense is there for Obama squashing school vouchers for poor kids in D.C.?
Romney is not opposed to a federal role in education. That won’t please those who think the feds should stay out of K-12 education entirely. But in championing school reform and school choice, he presents an attractive agenda for suburban voters and minorities who may suffer the most from rotten schools. That give him a step up in the “income inequality” and upward-mobility debate.