Romney’s Ed Proposal Isn’t the Same Old Voucher Plan

As election day gets closer, the candidates’ views on various issues that matter to voters continue to come into sharper focus. In an editorial for the Los Angeles Times, Jonathan Zimmerman, a professor of history and eduction at New York University, breaks down the impact that the education policy ideas offered by Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney would have on the future of public education in the United States.

Zimmerman dismisses the idea that it is President Barack Obama who deserves his reputation as an education maverick, instead pointing out that the President’s policy for the duration of his administration has been simply to continue to follow the path laid down for him by George W. Bush. It is actually Romney, and his outside-the-box thinking on federal education funding, that has the potential to really transform schools in this country.

The proposal that drew Zimmerman’s attention is the one that would allow low-income and disabled students to use federal money allocated towards their education and invest it in the school that they find would be more appropriate for their needs. Without giving the proposal a second look, some might both condemn and dismiss it as yet another attempt to expand the reach of vouchers — the perennial boogeymen of Democratic critics. But if examined closely, it becomes obvious that Romney’s plan differs from vouchers in one critical way: the students won’t be able to spend the money on any school, but only a better-performing public school even if it is located outside their home district.

And that, in turn, would take on the true sacred cow in American education: local control. Tomorrow, I can drive to your hometown and access a vast array of public services: roads, parks, police and more. But if I try to enroll my children in your public schools, I’ll probably be turned away. Yes, underenrolled districts occasionally issue permits that allow in a few kids from elsewhere. But in general, schools have been closed to all except those whose property taxes go to fund them.

Almost more than in any other area of life, access to quality public education has been a matter of winning the geographical lottery. Attaching federal funding to the student and not to either the district or the school will go a long away to counteracting this kind of predestination. There can be no real improvement in the closing of the income achievement gap, says Zimmerman, until the disparity in access is addressed.

President Obama’s education policies do nothing to address this basic disparity; indeed, they don’t even mention it. To Obama’s credit, his stimulus package included nearly $100 billion in aid to education. Since then, the White House says, the stimulus has created or saved 300,000 jobs for teachers, principals and other school employees.