Mitt Romney Wants to Take Books from Poor Kids

In a speech to the United States Chamber of Commerce last month, Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney laid out his grand vision for the reform of American education. At the core of his speech was “school choice”– a term that is usually refers to state-sponsored vouchers that can be used toward private school tuition. Romney’s plan, however, goes beyond just the privatization of the American education system. He wants students to be able to enroll in any school of their choice, public or private, with the aid of 25 billion dollars in federal funds.

This sounds suspiciously like an increase in government spending– a major red flag for any Republican candidate. But fear not, penny-pinchers, as Mitt Romney has a way to pay for this plan that does not require more taxation or– heaven forbid– a decrease in spending on, say, defense.

Mittens wants to pay for these vouchers by taking away poor kids’ library books.

Romney’s plan would link billions of dollars in federal funding for IDEA (the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act) and Title I programs to the vouchers, so that this money could be used to pay tuition at a private school or an out-of-district public school of a student’s choice. IDEA funds help schools provide children with learning and physical disabilities with the accommodations they need to succeed. Title I money is provided to schools with high percentages of poor children. This additional federal aid helps schools in impoverished areas train teachers, buy books for their libraries, and develop targeted programs to assist poor children.

In other words, the plan would take money away from schools that need it most and redistribute these funds to private and charter schools, and other recipients of transfer children– many of which, one can imagine, would be in more affluent areas. In effect, it would shift Title I from being a program targeted toward improving struggling schools to one that rewarded schools that were already succeeding, or are at least perceived to be that way– the schools that need Title I aid the least.

One might argue that this sort of competition for students is just what schools need to whip themselves into shape (since, clearly, school reform is a mere matter of will), but this ignores the fundamental flaw in attaching funds to per-pupil enrollment. Just because one student transfers doesn’t mean that a school requires precisely that much less money to operate. It simply means that students at losing schools will be forced into bigger classes with less money for enrichment programs and, yes, library books. How this is supposed to benefit the students who are left behind is questionable at best. At most, it is potentially malicious toward urban districts that will struggle to keep and attract students. The number of transfer students other public and private schools are willing to take is always limited– so what happens to children who are unable to pick up their books and move?

There are many other problems with Romney’s plan, including one of transportation. How will this plan avoid penalizing parents who do not have the time or the transportation to take their children to far-away schools? How would a lily-white suburb respond to an influx of transfer children from poorer city districts? After all, it wasn’t all that long ago that busing was a hot political issue– and one that Republicans campaigned firmly against in the interest of “preserving neighborhood schools” (and, coincidentally, racial segregation). Now Romney is implicitly championing cross-district busing, though I doubt you’d ever hear him characterize it that way. My guess is that, should Romney be elected and the bill drafted, the section that permits students to attend schools outside of their home districts will be the first to go, leaving the bill one that redirects money from poor schools to private schools.

I, for one, hope we never have to find out.

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