BOSTON — Calling it the “civil rights issue of our era,” presumptive Republican nominee Mitt Romney shifted the discussion in the 2012 presidential race from the economy to education, laying out his education platform to a group of Latino business owners Wednesday.
Romney proposed giving low-income and special needs students the ability to enroll in any public school in their state and an increase in the number of charter schools.
In a conference call with reporters, Oren Cass, Romney’s director of domestic policy, elaborated on how the plan would work.
“Obviously, with an open enrollment plan, there needs to be a mechanism that addresses the capacity of the schools in all of the districts of a state,” Cass said. “So the way the policy would be implemented would require that states provide access outside the district but also recognize that any given district is going to have to have capacity restrictions that would also be respected.”
In Massachusetts, Romney’s proposal is receiving a mixed response. Not everyone agrees that letting parents send children to the school of their choice is a good idea.
Paul Toner, president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, predicts that Romney’s proposal would undermine urban schools.
“You’ll see highly motivated parents, by all means necessary, removing their children from an urban school, trying to get themselves into a private or a suburban school,” Toner said. “Those resources would leave the urban school, making matters worse in the urban school. What we need to be doing is providing those schools with more resources, not taking resources away from them.”
The money the federal government sends to school districts who educate low-income students is called Title I funds. Massachusetts Secretary of Education Paul Reville says that, at least in Massachusetts, Title I funds are a small part of what is spent on educating those children.
“Federal funds in Massachusetts are something in the neighborhood of 7 or 8 percent of what we spend overall on education,” Reville said. “The state and local government make up the lion’s share of that spending. So the idea that you’d have enough monies from the Title I money to defray the cost of the student attending a school in another district just doesn’t work.”
But Jim Stergios, executive director of the Pioneer Institute, says there’s no reason to believe Romney’s proposal wouldn’t work. Stergios believes Romney is drawing inspiration from a successful Massachusetts program that already allows city children to attend suburban schools.
“How could this money be used effectively?” Stergios asked rhetorically. “Think about the Metco Program for a second. We spend about $5,000 per student, and those students are allowed to go to places like Brookline, to Wellesley, to Lincoln-Sudbury and access a great education in those districts.”
Romney’s proposal would have to respect state law. So, in Massachusetts, no public money could go to private or parochial schools.