Responding to Romney’s Critics

Regarding education reform, Romney needs to pound on the facts, leaving his detractors to pound on the table.

Recently Mitt Romney laid out his education vision in a speech at the Latino Coalition’s annual economic summit in Washington D.C. The Republican candidate for president didn’t mince words. He said that we are in the midst of a “national educational emergency,” and that the only reason we don’t hear more about it is that our national focus is squarely centered on the economy. Then he got down to specifics and said,

Parental choice will hold schools responsible for results, but parents can only exercise that choice effectively if they have good information. No Child Left Behind helped our nation take a giant step forward in bridging this information gap. But the law is not without its weaknesses. As president, I will break the political logjam that has prevented successful reform of the law. I will reduce federal micromanagement while redoubling efforts to ensure that schools are held responsible for results.

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.

He then talked about the teachers unions’ role in the problem.

…accomplishing real change won’t be easy. Efforts to truly reform our schools always meet strong resistance from entrenched interests.

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.

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.

Annually, many teachers are forced to pay almost $1,000 in union dues. The two major teachers unions take in $600 million each year. That’s more revenue than both of the political parties combined.

Mr. Romney’s talk was a good one, basically hitting on many of the points that education reformers have been making for years. So, naturally, the naysayers and outright opponents of reform took him to task.

Jay Mathews, writing in the Washington Post, oddly claims that Romney and Obama are “educational twins.” While both men certainly are reform-minded, their reforms run in different directions, most notably Romney’s embrace of vouchers. (Obama favors some school choice but not vouchers – were he to do so, it would destroy his lovey-dovey relationship with the teachers unions.) Usually sensible, Mathews has a blind spot when the “v” word is mentioned. He says that, “…vouchers have no chance of ever expanding very far.” However, Greg Forster, senior fellow with the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, has debunked Mathews’ claim in the past and does so again in a point by point rebuttal, the centerpiece of which is,

there are now 34 school choice programs serving 212,000 students, and this story Mathews is telling hasn’t happened anywhere.

Not surprisingly, the most hostile commentary comes from the union apologists. Matt Miller, who says he has “slammed teachers unions plenty,” goes into somber mode and in sotto voce tells us in that there is a “deeper reality” that we all need to grapple with.

The top performing school systems in the world have strong teachers unions at the heart of their education establishment.

Lighten up, Mr. Miller. In reality, this does not qualify as “grappleable.” The same claim has been made countless times by union defenders. The short answer to your “deeper reality” is that in Finland and other countries, the teachers unions are more like guilds – they exist mainly to advance the professional status of their members. American teachers unions are built on the industrial model – treating teachers not like professionals but like factory workers, and protecting them no matter what crimes they may have committed and no matter how poorly they do their jobs.

Then there is Mike Hall writing on the AFL-CIO website. He picks on Romney’s assertion that, despite the popular myth, smaller class size does not translate into student achievement. The unions will never give up their “smaller is better” mantra because small classes mean more teachers and therefore more dues for the union. As if to show that he is knowledgeable on the subject, Hall trots out a dinosaur – Project Star – a study from Tennessee conducted in the 1980s – which Hall claims,

…showed students who were placed in a smaller-sized classroom made measurable gains and performed better even when they were put back in larger classes.

I totally debunk the “smaller is better” myth here. The most extensive study on the subject was done by Hoover Institution senior fellow and economist Eric Hanushek in 1998. He examined 277 different studies on the effect of teacher-pupil ratios and class-size averages on student achievement, he found that 15 percent of the studies found an improvement in achievement, while 72 percent found no effect at all—and 13 percent found that reducing class size had a negative effect on achievement. While Hanushek admits that in some cases, children might benefit from a small-class environment, there is no way “to describe a priori situations where reduced class size will be beneficial.”

And what would a presidential talk about education reform be without a rebuttal from American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten? In a press release posted on the AFT website, she claims,

Today, Mitt Romney squandered an opportunity to participate in a meaningful discussion of real education reform by attempting to disguise attacks on teachers and public education as meaningful policy proposals.

Attack teachers? Hardly, though he did have harsh words about their unions. But the next part made my head explode,

Instead of looking to improve education for all children, he parroted failed voucher and privatization schemes that have not improved student learning. Romney’s proposal to take even more money out of public education and funnel it to private schools is absurd at a time when school budgets already are being slashed to the bone across the country.

“Failed voucher and privatization schemes?” She really sounds as if she believes this nonsense. A little over a year ago, the Friedman Foundation released the results of study, the most extensive ever done, which stated,

Ten empirical studies have used random assignment, the gold standard of social science, to examine how vouchers affect participants. Nine studies find that vouchers improve student outcomes, six that all students benefit and three that some benefit and some are not affected. One study finds no visible impact. None of these studies finds a negative impact.

Nineteen empirical studies have examined how vouchers affect outcomes in public schools. Of these studies, 18 find that vouchers improved public schools and one finds no visible impact. No empirical studies find that vouchers harm public schools.

Weingarten’s point that vouchers take money out of public education is also erroneous. As the Friedman Foundation explains,

State budgets typically save money when students use vouchers to attend private schools. Vouchers usually redirect state education spending from school districts to parents. If the vouchers are not worth the entire amount of state education spending, as is generally the case, then the state saves money on the difference. For example, if a state spends $6,000 per student annually in public schools, and offers a $5,000 voucher, the state saves $1,000 each year for each participating student.

The only problem I found with Romney’s talk is that while he wants to disentangle Washington from education matters to a certain degree, he doesn’t go far enough. He straddles the fence on No Child Left Behind – the reforms proposed by George W. Bush. NCLB is the 8th reauthorization of the 1965 Elementary and Second Education Act (ESEA) which signaled the feds’ intrusion into what had always been a state issue. Federal involvement has produced no benefits for U.S. school kids. What it has done is divert a ridiculous amount of money from the classroom to feed an insatiable bureaucracy.

Writing in National Review Online, Heritage Foundation education fellow Lindsey Burke says it best,

Moving forward, Romney’s agenda should include the conservative alternative to NCLB: the Academic Partnerships Lead Us to Success (APLUS) Act. APLUS would allow states to opt out and spend their share of federal education dollars on any lawful education purpose they believe would best benefit students. It’s one of the best ways Congress could restore constitutional governance in education: send dollars and decision-making back to state and local leaders who are closest to the student.

Romney’s vision is a good one. With a few tweaks it could be a great one. Importantly, he has facts on his side, and he needs to pound on them every chance he gets. If he does that, all the union leaders and other entrenched special interests can do is pound on the table.

About the author: Larry Sand, a former classroom teacher, is the president of the non-profit California Teachers Empowerment Network – a non-partisan, non-political group dedicated to providing teachers with reliable and balanced information about professional affiliations and positions on educational issues. (Title for identification purposes only.)

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