Until last week, even some of Mitt Romney's own advisers were scratching their heads about how a Romney White House would handle education. Is the former Massachusetts governor an "Abolish the Education Department" guy? Or is he a staunch education reform guy like President George W. Bush? The bold education plan hot off the press from the Romney campaign indicates that the Republican presidential contender is closer to the latter camp.
The most radical piece of Romney's education plan would require states to give disadvantaged students open enrollment to all schools--public and private--throughout the state. Romney wants federal Title I funding, which is intended for low-income students, as well as funding for students with disabilities, to be tied to open enrollment policies. Those funds now are doled out by individual communities to schools with the highest percentage of disadvantaged students. Romney's idea turns this localized funding mechanism on its head, setting up a host of logistical questions and a potential regulatory mess. What happens if a good school is overbooked already? What happens to the schools that everyone might ditch? Do the same choice opportunities apply to middle-income students at Title I schools?
Romney's school choice plan is an excellent political tool because it taps into his deeply-seeded notion that competition is the answer to almost every problem. It also answers a clarion conservative call for more parental choice in schools and gives him a chance to trash President Obama for zeroing out the District of Columbia's popular school voucher program.
Is Romney's school choice plan workable? Is it politically smart? What hurdles would he encounter if he tried to enact it? Are there other ways to have federal funds "follow the child," as Romney would do? If Romney's school choice plan did not apply to private schools, would it make a difference? How should the federal government accommodate state and district capacity restrictions in implementing such a plan?