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.
The reform effort, Mr. Downes said, made the governor’s job much easier, as did the demographic makeup of Massachusetts.
“I think Massachusetts students probably would be doing well almost independently of everything else that goes on,” he said, referencing the state’s relatively wealthy residents, low poverty rates and higher-than-average school spending.
Running into trouble
But while classroom success continued under Mr. Romney, several of his other key proposals fell flat. He attempted to implement a merit pay system for teachers, designed to reward the best instructors with extra cash.
He also sought reforms to the teacher tenure system, often criticized for making it difficult, if not impossible, to remove ineffective classroom leaders.
Both of those goals met stiff resistance from labor unions and other opponents and were ultimately abandoned.
“It takes two to tango,” Mr. Peyser said, adding that the failure of some of Mr. Romney’s objectives “were not for lack of trying,” but instead were the result of a Democratic legislature unwilling to embrace them and the political power of unions.
“He was trying to push it one step further, and he ran into the kind of opposition that you would expect and that we’ve seen other places” where similar changes have been proposed, Mr. Peyser said.
Mr. Romney also successfully pushed for English immersion in schools and phasing out bilingual education, though many observers believe that the goal of helping Hispanic and other students learn the language quickly hasn’t been met.
Critics argue that it’s because the policy is deeply flawed, while Romney supporters, such as Mr. Peyser, contend that the English immersion approach was never fully implemented, nor can it yet be fully measured.
“The jury is still out from an empirical point of view,” Mr. Peyser said.
In several instances, Mr. Romney stuck to his guns and stood up to political opponents. He vetoed a bill put forth by Democrats to place a moratorium on the number of charter schools in the state, which were initially given the green light as part of the 1993 reforms.
Now, the state has 72 charters serving more than 2 percent of the student population, and Mr. Romney is making charters and school choice a cornerstone of his education agenda.
“No parent should be forced to send their child to a failing school and that increased choice translates into better outcomes for all students,” reads a portion of his education platform.
In the end, though, it likely will come down to dollars, specialists say. Massachusetts’ per-pupil spending is eighth in the nation, helping to drive its high academic performance.
But with Republicans intent on slashing federal spending, Mr. Romney will face significant challenges with respect to education if he becomes president.
“You don’t have to drop your standards if you’re willing to pay for what it takes,” Mr. Coleman said. “If you’re going to be a classic fiscal conservative and not raise taxes, you’re going to have to lower your standards or you’re setting yourself up your failure.”