In a speech today, presumptive GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney will lay out the foundations of his education platform. Based on an outline of his proposals released by Education Week this morning, Gov. Romney seems just a little less disinterested in the Constitution -- and the 40-plus years of proven federal education failure -- than the man he seeks to replace. And no, calling what you want federal "incentives" neither absolves them of being unacceptable federal intrusions, nor makes them any less coercive.
The heart of what Mr. Romney wants in elementary and secondary education is federal enticements to get states to implement everything from "open-enrollment" policies for schools, to individual school "report cards," to encouraging "talented individuals to become teachers."
As I wrote last week, while "incentive" sounds kinda harmless, an incentive program is really all that No Child Left Behind is. No state has to do anything in NCLB. It only has to follow the law if it wants the federal money attached to it. The funding is only an incentive, but it is so big an incentive it is irresistible, even with the law being a huge millstone around the neck of American education. And, of course, taxpayers had no choice about furnishing the ducats to begin with. (Well, I suppose they were incentivized by a trip to prison...)
Where Romney's K-12 offering is most enticing is his proposal that federal money be attached to low-income and special-needs children and made portable even to private schools. (Portable, that is, "in accordance with state guidelines," a proviso the outline doesn't flesh out.) But the very real threat, as with all federal funding , is federal control. What Washington funds it will regulate -- though usually for political show, not efficiency or effectiveness -- and that is something we should strenuously avoid for private schools when states can implement more varied -- and less regulation prone -- choice mechanisms such as education tax credits. And, of course, the Constitution gives the federal government no more authority to deliver school choice than to dictate curricula. That is, except in Washington itself, and to his credit Mr. Romney is proposing to save the D.C. voucher program that Mr. Obama, for whatever shoddy reason, seems determined to suffocate.
The good news about Gov. Romney's outline is that it directly addresses the primary problem in higher education, and one of its primary causes: insane tuition inflation fueled by massive federal student aid. Indeed, though he will no doubt get flayed for it by the higher ed establishment, who will publically deny it like so many naked emperors, Mr. Romney's outline is refreshingly straightforward in identifying the root problem:
Governor Romney realizes that more spending will not solve the problem of tuition increases – to the contrary, it has helped fuel the problem. When Washington puts more money into student aid programs to help families and individuals pay for higher education, colleges and universities raise tuition rates.
So what grade does Mr. Romney get on education, at least from this initial outline? About a 30 percent for K-12, and a 90 percent for higher ed. That works out to 60 percent -- a woeful D-minus -- but that's probably a tad bit better than most presidents would have gotten since the 1960s.