Romney Peddles Creative Destruction For Americas School Children

Jeff Bryant

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, notorious for his flip-flops on a broad array of issues, seems to maintain this tendency when he’s addressing policies governing education and public schools.

But it would be a big mistake to conclude that there is not at the heart of Romney’s political views a core philosophy that would be deeply destructive to public education and harmful to the future well-being of the nation’s children and youth.

Romney’s Edu-Flip-Flops
First, Romney’s edu-flip-flops are indeed numerous. All the way back to his previous run for the Presidency in 2008, Romney’s adversaries have spotlighted inconsistencies with his pronouncements about education policy on the trail and his record as Massachusetts Governor.

As revealed this week in a leak to the internet of the opposition research conducted by staffers of his Republican Presidential nominee rival John McCain, Romney has historically had it both ways on education policy issues including school choice, abstinence-only sexual education, English only immersion vs. bilingual ed, and eliminating the Department of Education. (hat-tip: GottaLaff)

According to the McCain campaign document, on the issue of using school vouchers to allow parents to opt-into private schools, for example, Romney came out against school vouchers in 2002 after favoring them in 1994.

Also, Romney maintained support for No Child Left Behind and standardized testing while expressing doubts about NCLB’s measurements and exhibiting ignorance about the “vital details” of testing systems.

He said he opposed “abstinence-only” sexual education programs in schools in 2002 then in 2005 tried to steer $740,000 in federal funds to a school program emphasizing abstinence-only.

In 2002, he refused to back a ballot initiative mandating English immersion instead of bilingual education then months later reversed his position and endorsed the ballot initiative.

And as a Senate candidate in 1994, Romney backed eliminating the federal Department of Education but later changed his views to supporting the Department.

In his more recent pronouncements, Romney has shown some confusion in contrasting his own views on education policy with those of President Obama. As noted in the education profession’s trade newspaper Education Week, Romney proclaimed his agreement with the President on “school choice” even though Obama moved to scrap the choice program in Washington, DC.

Romney’s Heart of Darkness
That said, despite his shiftiness on specific issues related to education, Romney does indeed have a core philosophy on education, which he revealed earlier this week. According to an article in the New York Times Romney has developed a recurrent theme on education in his campaign:

At a town-hall-style meeting in New Hampshire last month, listeners pressed Mitt Romney on the soaring cost of higher education. His solution: students should consider for-profit colleges like the little-known Full Sail University in Florida.
A week later in Iowa, Mr. Romney offered another unsolicited endorsement for “a place in Florida called Full Sail University.” By increasing competition, for-profit institutions like Full Sail, which focuses on the entertainment field, “hold down the cost of education” and help students get jobs without saddling them with excessive debt, he said.

The article, written by Eric Lichtblau, was quick to point out that the cost of tuition at Full Sail can run more than $80,000 for a 21-month program, and that many of the school’s programs have a less than sterling graduation rate — as low as just 14 percent of students graduating on time and only 38 percent at all. Meanwhile, some Full Sail students “carried a median debt load of nearly $59,000 in federal and private loans,” way more than the national average of $23,000.

So given Full Sail’s high costs and troubling results, why would Romney offer it as an exemplar of good education?

To answer that question, let’s deconstruct what the Times article said. First two words — “for-profit” and “competitive” — stand out in Romney’s adulation of the Full Sail program. And second, there’s the fact that the school’s “chief executive, Bill Heavener, is a major campaign donor and a co-chairman” of Romney’s state fund-raising team in Florida.

These two conditions — that Full Sail is “good business” and part of his network of rich chums — reveal that Romney’s views on education are primarily driven by crony capitalism that values a particular ideology over the real values of teaching and learning.

Did Romney base his admiration for Full Sail on the institution’s curriculum? Did he express admiration for the way the faculty conduct lessons and measure results? Did he talk about the knowledge and values that are instilled in the students once they’ve completed the programs?

No. What he admires most about Full Sail is the institution’s ability to operate like a successful business — making a profit, being competitive — and that its leaders are part of his inner circle of like-minded corporatists.

This business-minded perspective — which is perhaps the chief ideology driving the Romney candidacy altogether — is how Romney routinely differentiates his qualifications for office from the rest of the presidential field. As if only he has the executive experience — forged in the marketplace — that can steer America toward better policy.

But what actually is the real nature of the business hammer Romney uses to address every nail in America? After all, anytime someone says they want to run our public institutions “like a business,” what kind of business do they mean? And why “like a business?” Most businesses go out of business. Is that the kind of track record we want for our public institutions to emulate?

Doing School The Bain Way
No doubt, what Romney means when he says “like a business” is to follow the practices of the investment firm Bain Capital where he made so much of his considerable fortune. As an article in the Washington Post this week explained, both the successes and the failures Romney had while at helm of Bain “reveal the candidate’s faith in ‘creative destruction,’ the notion that the new must relentlessly replace the old so that companies and the economy can become more efficient.”

The article contends that doing business the Bain way “meant embracing aspects of capitalism that have unsettled some Americans: laying off workers when necessary, expanding overseas to chase profits and paying top executives significantly more than employees on lower rungs.”

Whether you find this to be an acceptable approach to doing business, or not, you have to wonder what would be a “creative destruction” approach to education.

Taking a sympathetic view, this from “Creative Destruction Properly Understood” in The American Spectator, creative destruction presents a “paradox of progress” in which every step forward is accompanied by dead bodies along the way.

Here’s a particularly revealing description of this approach to “progress” that the author cites from a couple of bankers:

Herein lies the paradox of progress. A society cannot reap the rewards of creative destruction without accepting that some individuals might be worse off, not just in the short term, but perhaps forever.

Now apply that statement to education and substitute “children” for “individuals” and see how that statement works for you.

Lets’ try that analogy again with this statement from our oh-so-wise financiers:

The disruption of lost jobs children and shuttered businesses schools is immediate, while the payoff from creative destruction comes mainly in the long term.

I suppose one can imagine a parent agreeing with this statement — as long as it’s not his or her child who is the one being consigned to history while progress marches bravely on.

If you think this is just an intellectual exercise, then you’re not paying attention.

When Creative Destruction Comes to Town
Unfortunately, creative destruction is already being applied to public schools in many places across America. For Exhibit A, cast your eyes on Chester-Upland school district near Philadelphia, PA.

As Pennsylvania-based edu-blogger Tim Slekar recently contented at Huffington Post, when government officials, including current Governor Tom Corbett, developed competitive charter schools operating parallel to traditional public schools in Chester-Upland, it resulted in the deliberate underfunding of traditional public schools and seriously negative consequences to school children.

As National Education Association President Dennis Van Roekel recently explained, also in Huffington Post, Chester-Upland is a troubled district serving about 3,650 students, more than 70 percent who are eligible for free or reduced-price lunches — more than double Pennsylvania’s average.

To solve the chronic problems of educating underserved, minority children — certainly a national problem not peculiar to Chester-Upland — the state took control of the district and subjected it to various management schemes, including contracting management out to a for-profit company, Edison Schools.

In the latest attempt to “turn around” these underserved schools, state officials incentivized private individuals to open charter schools that would “compete” with the traditional public schools in hopes of “catalyzing progress.”

As Valerie Strauss explains at her Washington Post blog, “Now about 45 percent of the district’s students go to two public charter schools, and 45 percent of the district’s total operating budget goes to two charter schools to pay to educate those children.”

The funding cuts to the traditional public schools in Chester-Upland have resulted in huge losses of personnel including 40 percent of the system’s professional staff, and 50 people of its unionized support staff. Some of the unionized teachers and others, including bus drivers and cafeteria aides, have agreed to work for free. But who knows how long that can last.

So what have the competitive charter schools produced? Well, one of them, the largest charter in the state, is one of 89 schools in Pennsylvania under investigation for irregularities in scores on 2009 state standardized tests.

So what are the children and families of Chester-Upland to do while their schools are on the brink? Even if the competitive charters were “better,” and it’s highly doubtful that they are, there’s not enough room for all the district’s students to transfer. And it’s not like they can be airlifted to Philadelphia, a district also experiencing serious budget problems.

But I suppose that’s just the “paradox of progress.”

So let’s recap: Sure Romney — and many other politicians for that matter — flip-flop on education issues. But at the very core of Romney and those who agree with this “business” perspective to education is a pernicious philosophy that must be rejected outright — regardless of the source.

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