Romney’s Calling To Urban Education

“Despite the progress we celebrate today, the most important civil rights challenge of our time is the failure of our inner city schools. As President, I will go to work to improve standards and usher in a new era of American prosperity that touches all our people,” Mitt Romney says on the campaign trail.

It is not a new realization for the former governor of Massachusetts; he has said the same thing for years. And just as his ideals for education stay the same, his plans to achieve them also remain very similar. He continues to support charter schools, local control over schools coupled with strict performance standards, financial rewards for achievement, and he still opposes bilingual culture.

With such a steadfast vision for education, perhaps his record governing a state with the nation’s 26th largest city will provide some insight as to how a Romney presidency would affect urban education.

Performance standards put in place before the Romney Administration served the commonwealth well, and three years into his one term as governor, Massachusetts schools, under local guidance, broke national records. In 2005, reading and math scores for fourth and eighth graders on a national test were the highest in the U.S.

And although the state, like many others, assesses its students’ performance through a variety of measures, the statewide achievements of those students were first in the nation again in 2007, the year after Romney left state government. That year, black and Hispanic students in the fourth grade showed significant improvements in both reading and math statewide, while Hispanic students in the eighth grade also showed improvements in both subjects statewide.

But like many large urban districts across the country, test scores in Boston – where 42 percent of students are black and 35 percent are Hispanic – were less encouraging. In 2005 Boston students scored in the middle range of other large cities in those same tests. On average, these urban districts score significantly lower than the national average.

In 2007 improvements in math scores for Boston students were the highest of the 11 large urban districts that the federal test tracks. But the gap between white and minority students grew wider. It grew by six points between white and Hispanic students in eighth grade reading, and six points between white and black students in fourth grade reading.

So the commonwealth’s record during and immediately after Romney’s term, as painted by these national standardized tests, is a mixed portrait. But what role did his administration play in Massachusetts education, and what would the federal government’s role be if the former venture capitalist were elected president?

When he took office in New England, he inherited the reins of a state that allowed for local management of schools, which were required to meet a series of performance standards. Romney was supportive of the general arrangement, and he added a science requirement that students must meet to graduate. (The test requirements for graduation in the state are currently facing a backlash, however.) He is inclined to take a similar stance on a national level. “Rarely do I think the federal government should step in and tell a school what to teach,” he said on a video of a campaign event posted on his website “But its a good thing to have high standards and to set standards.”

As governor, he unsuccessfully attempted to institute merit pay for high performing teachers, and to boost performance in low-scoring schools, he initiated a pilot program of longer days for 10 schools in five cities.

His education platform also makes school choice a priority, which means giving parents the option of choosing from a public, private, or charter school, or home schooling their children.

In Massachusetts, he successfully campaigned against an attempt by lawmakers to limit the number of charter schools, which receive public funds but have less restrictions than public schools and are given more room to experiment. As president, he would push for a tax credit for families that home school their children.

One of his earliest acts as governor was to push for the elimination of bilingual education. Through a ballot referendum, voters overwhelming approved of the idea. But lawmakers carved out a series of exemptions to the referendum over the opposition of Romney. Many of the local editorial boards supported the legislature, arguing that the language of the referendum was not clear. But three years later, the Boston Globe found that students speaking English as a second language still struggled to function in a regular classroom. He still feels that “this is a nation which should never become a bilingual or multilingual nation.”

Based on data his administration gathered, the governor also doesn’t see class size as being important to school performance. A local judge who pointed out that some students are forced to stand at the back of a classroom because of overcrowding disagreed, however.

Photo courtesy the Romney campaign.

Tags: education, mike muller, mitt romney, massachusetts, merit pay, performance standards, english as a second language, ballot referendum