Concerns over Romney plan allowing choice of schools

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Mitt Romney’s plan to encourage parents of poor and disabled students to send  their children to the school of their choice is receiving mixed reviews.

In a speech Wednesday, the former Massachusetts governor and presumed  Republican presidential nominee outlined a voucherlike plan to let low-income  and disabled students use federal money to attend public schools, public charter  schools and, in some cases, private schools of their choice.

While the proposal is line with GOP reforms aimed at giving students more  educational choices, it is unclear how schools in areas that depend on the  federal funding would fare.

Massachusetts Secretary of Education Paul Reville said federal funds only  account for 7 percent to 8 percent of what is spent to educate low-income and  special-needs children in the Bay State. As a result, he questioned whether the  vouchers would be large enough to entice families to send their children to  another school district.

“It has a lot of promise but is doubtful on delivery,” Reville said. “I don’t  think this is going to get the job done for families.”

Jean Franco, superintendent of the Lowell school system, said Romney’s  proposal could harm urban schools.

Lowell uses its $10 million share of Title I funding for a variety of  services that impact not only special-needs students, but also students  enrolled in advanced classes, Franco said.

“There would be a huge impact on the school system if that money was taken  away,” she said.

But Jim Stergios, executive director of the Pioneer Institute, said steps  must be taken to improve struggling inner-city schools, whose students he said  have not improved their academic performance at the same rate as suburban  schools.

“The inner-city schools have, to date, not shown they have the ability to get  it done,” Stergios said. “While we have moved the needles, we have done it in  suburban achievement scores. If we haven’t been able to move the needle in inner  cities, it seems reasonable to say we should try a different path.”

Romney’s proposal is not expected to include any new federal money for  education, but it represented his most detailed plans to date on what he called  a “failing” education system.

The issue is a key concern for most Americans. Education has ranked in the  top three most important issues in the AP-GfK poll for the last two years; 84  percent of Americans said education is an extremely or very important issue to  them in the most recent survey in February.

Romney’s argument carries some risk. His regular criticism of labor unions,  in particular, threatens to alienate voters in Rust Belt states like Michigan,  Ohio and Pennsylvania, where a close election may be decided.

Romney’s positions on education have evolved over time. He once supported the  Bush-era education overhaul known as No Child Left Behind, but he has since  generally come out against the policy many conservatives see as an expansion of  the federal government.

The plans he unveiled Wednesday would strip the teeth from the law that  punishes poorly performing schools. But he said he supports “straightforward  public report cards” to evaluate schools.

Reville praised the report-card aspect of Romney’s plan, but said  Massachusetts already does something similar.

“Anything that increases the flow of information is a good idea,” Reville  said. “In Massachusetts, we developed a sophisticated system that is stronger  and more complex, where we classify schools into five different categories. Once  again, Romney is racing to catch up to us.”

Also seen in Sentinel & Enterprise.