Romney's education plan: Great ideas from the wrong level of government

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For today's week-in-review email, Andy writes a great column examining Mitt Romney's proposed education plan.

Presumptive Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney released his education plan last week, which you can read here.

Most of Romney's proposals will sound very familiar to those in the education-reform movement. He notes that America's problems in education don't stem from lack of funding (p. 20). He wants to empower parents with real educational choices for their children as "a vital component of any national agenda for education reform" (p. 21). And he seeks to modify "No Child Left Behind" in order to redouble "efforts to provide transparency and accountability" (p. 27).

On the surface, these sound like great ideas. For years, NPRI has noted that there's little to no correlation between education spending and student achievement and has touted the benefits of school choice. So the principles guiding Romney are certainly sound. Yet our evaluation of the policy can't end there.

When you're considering the merits of a policy proposal, there are three important questions to ask. One, is the policy constitutional? Two, is this the lowest level of government that can enact the policy? And three, will the policy work?

Each question is important, but it's also essential to ask them in that order. Too often, federal politicians jump right to question three. So with all that in mind, let's look at Romney's plan.

Question 1: Is Romney's plan constitutional?

Question 2: Is this the lowest level of government that can enact Romney's policy?

Romney's plan addresses this issue in a subsection entitled "The Federal Role" (pp. 22-23):

As a former governor, Mitt Romney knows that states and localities are best-positioned to reform their education systems and must take the lead in implementing these core principles free of federal micromanagement. ...

Yet Romney also knows that the federal government cannot ignore the troubled state of American K-12 education. The federal government is uniquely positioned to provide financial support for the education of our neediest students and to require states and districts to tell the truth about how their schools and students are performing. Washington also has a critical role to play in enhancing competition among education providers by eliminating local education monopolies and supporting choice for parents and students. (Emphasis added)

Do you see the inherent contradiction here?

Imagine you're a parent who has set a 7:30 p.m. bedtime for your children. Then imagine that a politician decides that he is "uniquely positioned" to set all children's bedtimes and declares the national bedtime to be 7:30 p.m. Even though nothing would have changed for your family in practice, you'd still be outraged, and rightly so - because of the principle involved.

As a parent, it's your right to set your child's bedtime. And it's wrong for somebody else to usurp that right, even if the usurper agrees with you on the ideal time for a child to go to bed. Similarly, state and local governments have the right to set education policy free of federal mandates, even if those mandates are driven by sound policy ideas.

Question 3: Will the policy work?

This is the real tragedy that results when self-described conservative politicians decide that the best course isn't to shift power away from Washington, D.C., but is instead to "fix" the problem with a "better" federal solution. The federal solutions fail - and not only when they are based on unsound principles.

Eleven years after President George W. Bush signed "No Child Left Behind," nearly everyone wants the law changed substantially. And this is despite the solid ideas, like testing and accountability, contained in the program. The reason is that bureaucrats in Washington are simply unable to respond as effectively as more localized governments to the unique needs of individuals. So in this case, while Romney's policy ideas would work on a state or local level, the same ideas, implemented on the federal level, won't.

If he wins in November, let's hope Gov. Romney realizes that, while his education plan would be great for a governor to implement, it's not the right one for a president to push - for constitutional as well as practical reasons.

Thanks for reading, and I'll see you next time.

Andy Matthews
NPRI President

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