Mitt Romney kept academic standards high, pushed for more charter schools and took other steps during his time as Massachusetts governor to keep the state in the top tier of student performance — but he stumbled in his efforts to institute merit pay for teachers, revamp the tenure system and other aims.
Critics contend that the presumptive Republican nominee for president gave great speeches and PowerPoint presentations outlining his goals, but in a state dominated by Democrats and with an education establishment closely tied to labor unions, he failed to build the political partnerships necessary to advance major legislation.
After his four years at the helm of the Bay State, Mr. Romney left behind an education system that remains the envy of most other states, though opinions are divided about how much of an impact he actually had.
“There is a core movement in Massachusetts around accountability and responsibility, and Mitt Romney was a vocal advocate for that,” said Hardin Coleman, dean of the School of Education at Boston University. “But he certainly wasn’t new in that field. He spoke to those issues as governor, but what is commonly understood here in Massachusetts is that he was not effective in building coalitions in bringing [his policy objectives] to bear.”
As part of his current education policy platform, Mr. Romney touts the successes of Massachusetts students; indeed, they routinely rank at the top of many national rankings.
The state has placed first on the National Assessment of Educational Progress exams for four consecutive test cycles — 2005, 2007, 2009 and 2011. The tests measure reading and math skills among fourth- and eighth-grade students.
Mr. Romney also bolstered the state’s graduation exams during his time in office, adding a science, technology and engineering portion to the existing English and math tests taken by all Massachusetts 10th-graders and a prerequisite for graduation.
He also raised the bar for passage on those tests.
Even some of Mr. Romney’s detractors acknowledge that he pushed to keep standards high and strengthened graduation requirements, contributing in part to the consistently high performance on NAEP and other measures.
On the other hand, even his advisers cautiously avoid giving him too much praise.
“He can’t claim credit for all of the gains that were on his watch, but those gains continued while he was in office, from an already high level,” said James Peyser, the former chairman of the Massachusetts state Board of Education and now an education policy adviser to Mr. Romney.
Roots of success
Education analysts in the state find the roots of Massachusetts’ strong academic showing long before the Romney administration came to town. In 1993, the state enacted a historic education reform bill with bipartisan support, laying the groundwork for two decades of student success.
“The 1993 reforms were this clear political compromise, where you had increases in the state share of [education] spending that were designed to reduce inequalities across districts, combined with substantive standards that were in line or stronger than anything associated with No Child Left Behind,” passed by Congress in 2001, said Thomas A. Downes, associate professor of economics at Tufts University who specializes in public education finance and school choice.