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A Romney Win Could Upend K-12 Federal Policy Landscape

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

The Notebook has a content sharing arrangement with Education Week, where this article originally appeared. Tonight’s debate between the two candidates will focus on domestic policy. Michele McNeil, who wrote this piece, is co-author of the Politics K-12 blog.

Scaled-back federal Ed. Dept. one scenario; cloudy prospects for key Obama initiatives

By Michele McNeil on October 2, 2012

If Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney wins the November election, his ascension could endanger—or dismantle—key Obama administration education initiatives and lead to a slimmed-down and less activist U.S. Department of Education.

Gone could be any federal support for the Common Core State Standards, which Mr. Romney has cast as a state issue. The outlook would be cloudy for another "Early Learning Challenge," a $500 million Obama competition, since Mr. Romney has not made early education a key part of his platform. And in a nod to fiscal conservatism, he wants to combine duplicative teacher-quality programs into a block grant.

But some of President Barack Obama’s priorities might live on in a Romney administration. The former Massachusetts governor has praised the Race to the Top competition, Mr. Obama’s signature education redesign initiative. He also has voiced support for the Harlem Children’s Zone, a community-building project that inspired the current administration’s Promise Neighborhoods grants.

Mr. Romney, however, has been silent on perhaps the biggest question: Would he rescind, or demand changes to, the waivers that have been granted so far under the No Child Left Behind Act to 33 states and the District of Columbia?

Overall, education experts would not expect a very active Education Department under Mr. Romney.

Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney has used two different forums—a May 23 speech to the Latino Coalition, in Washington, and an appearance on NBC’s “Education Nation” last week—to explain how he would approach issues in education, including initiatives President Barack Obama has promoted.

“Right here in New York City, Geoffrey Canada has a program in Harlem that’s been just remarkably successful in helping bring young people to a posture where they’re ready to learn by the time school starts. And those types of efforts I think should be evaluated one by one, and we should encourage and support those that are most effective.”

"I think this era of initiatives of education reform coming from 400 Maryland Avenue will come to a close," said Michael J. Petrilli, the executive vice president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a Washington think tank, referring to the address of the department’s headquarters. "I think it’s going to be kind of a sleepy department."

Reading Signals

Although Mr. Romney has not devoted a significant chunk of his campaign to education, he has laid out a few initiatives he would pursue if elected.

Chief among them is a plan to convert Title I funding for disadvantaged students and special education aid into vouchers so students could take those federal dollars with them to another public or private school. Mr. Romney has not been specific on how such a program would work; the federal government provides less than 10 percent of all K-12 funding, with state and local dollars filling in the rest.

In addition, Mr. Romney has promised to rein in federal spending—something Democrats have warned could lead to deep cuts in education programs and larger class sizes.

As president, Mr. Romney would have the power to shape the direction of federal school accountability even if Congress failed to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, whose current version is the NCLB law. Since waivers under the law are made at the discretion of the education secretary, Mr. Romney and his department head could probably do with them what they wanted, policy experts point out.

"What the president giveth, the president can taketh away," former U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings, who served in President George W. Bush’s administration and at one point advised the Romney campaign, said in an interview during the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Fla.

"The waivers were a mistake," she said. "It’s a crazy quilt of a system which I think will die [on its] own."

Others would expect the waivers—in some form—to stick around.

"The most likely outcome is continuity. I don’t see Romney taking the waivers away. The genie’s out of the bottle," said Mr. Petrilli, who served in the Education Department under Ms. Spellings’ predecessor, Rod Paige, Mr. Bush’s first education secretary.

"I think the real question is whether he might provide even greater flexibility than the Obama administration did. Would he waive some of the conditions?" Mr. Petrilli said.

"The waiver decision is the biggest one that will face the Romney administration."

Chris Minnich, the senior membership director at the Council of Chief State School Officers, in Washington, said: "It would be really hard for any administration to back away from the state leadership. … We’ve set the long-term goal of having individualized state accountability with a high bar."

On other issues, Mr. Romney has tipped his hand.

For example, he has said that although he thinks states should be free to adopt the common core, he would not put federal resources behind it. And that could mean that a Romney administration might back away from tying waivers to common-core adoption, which is the easiest way states can satisfy the requirement that their standards be college- and career-ready.

"I don’t subscribe to the idea of the federal government trying to push a common core on various states," Mr. Romney said during the Education Nation forum hosted last week by NBC.

He also has suggested elements of what he wants to see in a federal accountability law, which could influence how he approaches waivers. For instance, Mr. Romney wants states to use an easy-to-understand, A-F grading system to measure schools’ progress.

Several states are using such a grading system as part of their waiver proposals to the federal Education Department. But many states proposed far-more-complex grading systems, which a Romney administration might not approve of.

Fiscal Shadow

Given Mr. Romney’s campaign pledge to rein in spending, and his opposition to federal financial support for the common-core initiative, it’s also highly unlikely he would set aside more money to pay for common assessments. The Obama administration used $360 million in economic-stimulus money to help pay for the development of common tests to match the common standards.

The common-core states are on their way to putting the new standards in place. But the costly testing component is more at risk.

"I think my bigger concern, when you look at the other pieces that have gone along with common core, is the common assessments," said John Barge, the elected Georgia state schools superintendent, who is a Republican. There’s "a lot of work to be done," he said.

In general, Mr. Barge said, "for me as a conservative, … I would like to say we would need less money from the federal government, but right now we can’t do that."

Other grant programs that have been launched under the Obama administration also will be ongoing after the election. If Mr. Romney wins, his appointee as education secretary will be in charge of implementing and monitoring programs such as the $4 billion Race to the Top state competition, which included 12 winners, and the nearly $1 billion Investing in Innovation program that’s awarded grants to dozens of schools and districts.

By year’s end, the Education Department will make a round of Race to the Top awards to school districts, too.

Mr. Romney has praised Race to the Top for its focus on expanding the growth of charter schools and spurring states to revamp teacher evaluations.

And Promise Neighborhoods could have a bright future, too. Mr. Romney has repeatedly singled out Geoffrey Canada’s work in creating the Harlem Children’s Zone—which provides wraparound services to improve the environments children live in—as a successful model. Mr. Obama created Promise Neighborhoods, a $100 million competitive-grant program, to help support programs like the one in Harlem.

Regardless of the future of those programs, states’ unspent grant winnings are relatively safe. Federal budget experts say a new president alone cannot scoop up unspent grant money, although Congress technically could.

But most observers agree that Mr. Romney would not pursue additional education money, particularly for Race to the Top.

"It’s not that Romney is opposed to the ideas in Race to the Top," said Jennifer Cohen Kabaker, a senior education policy analyst with the New America Foundation, a Washington think tank. "He’s opposed more to the role the federal government took to encourage states to take part in the reforms."

Staff Writer Alyson Klein contributed to this story.

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