Romney Intends Universal ‘Voucher’ System If Elected

Republican Presidential nominee Mitt Romney has outlined plans to overhaul federal education programs, if elected, and make the $25 billion in federal money unattached. Students would be free to use their education dollars to attend any school they choose, whether online or brick and mortar, public or private, charter or traditional. The stated aim is to introduce market dynamics into education.

“I will expand parental choice in an unprecedented way,” Romney said, adding that families’ freedom to vote with their feet “will hold schools responsible for results.”

Although Romney’s plans clearly equate to a voucher system Trip Gabriel, writing for the Star Advertiser, notes that Romney carefully avoids the word ‘voucher’. This is a little strange as it won’t do anything to diminish reactionary outrage from the unions or entrenched interests, and the plans are clearly aimed at differentiating himself from the Obama administration’s position.

“There’s not much left for Republicans to be distinctive about,” said Chester E. Finn, Jr., president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, an education policy group. “The one line the Obama folks have refused to cross is the voucher line” — that is, allowing students to use taxpayer money to attend any certified school, even a private school.

The voucherlike system also represents a return to Republican ideological roots after George W. Bush extended federal involvement in education with what is now largely seen as a failed No Child Left Behind law in 2002. While those on the right of the GOP would prefer to see the Education Department shut down completely and education matters left to the individual states, this isn’t a change Romney is likely to make in office. His proposed reduction of federal involvement has already cost him the services of Margaret Spellings, education secretary under Bush and an informal advisor to Romney. She is also a staunch advocate of a strong federal role on school accountability and said she withdrew her services once it became clear that Romney did not want to head in that direction:

“I have long supported and defended and believe in a muscular federal role on school accountability,” Spellings said. “Vouchers and choice as the drivers of accountability — obviously that’s untried and untested.”

Money for the new individual ‘vouchers’ would come from overhauling Title 1 and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act programs. Advisor Grover Whitehurst has noted that reforming these programs, the largest K-12 initiatives, into individual payments, could attract additional education dollar streams.

“If you connected state funding with federal funding, then you’re talking about a backpack with enough money in it to really empower choice,” said Whitehurst, director of education policy at the Brookings Institution. “The idea would be the federal Title 1 funds would allow states that want to move in this direction to do so, and if they did so, all of a sudden it’s a game changer.”

According to the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, 14 states have introduced or expanded private school vouchers since 2010.