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Missing the big picture: Romney’s Business Approach to Improving Education

May 25, 2012

On May 23, 2012, the presumptive Republican presidential candidate released a white paper titled “A Chance for Every Child, Mitt Romney’s Plan for Restoring the Promise of American Education.” One theme in the paper was to extend a voucher program to students that would allow them to select what school they thought best fits their individual needs.

Although the idea is ill conceived, I think it’s not an altogether surprising recommendation from someone who views governmental policy through the lens of a venture capitalist. On the surface it may seem appealing – provide federal funds directly to the student thereby making them education consumers allowing them the freedom of choosing which school to attend. At a macro level it seems plausible and to a certain segment of the public that may be sufficient to reinforce the bumper sticker concepts that resonate with many of the electorate. However, few things work only at the macro level and when one considers the micro effects of such a “free enterprise” approach to education funding it becomes apparent that turning individual students into education consumers is a very bad idea. At least it is a bad idea if the goal is to improve educational outcomes and performance but from a capitalist perspective some would consider it an effective approach to increasing profitability of private schools. And that’s where the goals of a business person running the government and a political leader diverge. Not every decision that results in increasing net profit is necessarily good or correct. Sometimes there are broader issues at play that should take priority over profit.

So what’s so bad about enabling student consumers? The premise is that given the funds and the freedom to choose, student consumers will pick the best schools for them and only the best schools will service – a variation of social Darwinism and a libertarian’s dream. However the problem is that students will likely not make their decisions on which schools to attend based solely on the educational quality of the school.

In response to a Romney type program, primary and secondary schools will inevitably do what universities have done. They will cater to the students and their dollars not by marketing the quality of their educational programs but by expanding and marketing the ancillary services they provide. It’s called educational consumerism and is a problem that is rampant in the university system that has lead to the “dumbing down” of college degrees through irrefutable grade inflation. One only has to visit a college campus to see the effect of the decades long “amenities race” reflected in elaborate food courts, health clubs, luxury dormitories and grade inflation. One sees that professors are under pressure to maintain a high aggregate GPA because that too is good for recruiting the next class of students.  (For additional perspective on grade inflation and consumerism in the university system please see: “UF Students are Smarter than UCF Students…”)  Educational consumerism continues to erode the quality of education at America’s universities so extending that concept to primary and secondary schools reflects Mr. Romney’s superficial, or at least capitalist centric, knowledge of educational issues.

Romney’s extended school voucher plan is another example of why ideas that are appropriate and successful in the capital market can be detrimental when applied to government policy decisions. It is an oversimplification to believe that the skills of a successful business person are extensible to effective management of government agencies and polices. Capitalists are rightly geared toward increasing capital while effective presidents are geared toward increasing the common good of the people. America needs to improve the quality of public education and not improve the bottom line of private schools.

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