WASHINGTON — Mitt Romney campaigned for governor in 2002 in favor of scrapping the nation’s first bilingual education law and instead immersing non-English speakers in classrooms where only English would be taught. The effort proved to be a failure.
Romney’s other big initiative as governor — trying to loosen union rules so teachers could be held more accountable — ran into a wall of opposition in the Democrat-controlled Legislature and went nowhere. Even a scholarship program Romney introduced to get top scorers on the state’s high school exit exams to enroll in Massachusetts’ public colleges failed to make a difference in the lives of most high-achieving students.
Now, running for president, Romney boasts of a record as an educational innovator, but a review of his efforts to impose changes on Massachusetts public schools reveals a wide disconnect between what he says on the stump and what he accomplished during his single term in office.
While he is widely credited for holding out for high standards and more charter schools, the high-profile initiatives proposed by the former private-equity businessman — much of it driven by the Republican orthodoxy of the time — suffered from a variety of practical problems.
Romney did not adequately account for the complexities of language acquisition, and without providing adequate money to train teachers, non-English speaking students quickly floundered. He made little attempt to woo the Legislature, let alone teachers and superintendents, to go along with his plans, unveiled via PowerPoint, to pay good teachers more and get rid of bad ones.
And his much hyped John and Abigail Adams Scholarships cover only tuition at state colleges, not fees, which account for more than 80 percent of yearly costs at some schools. Just a quarter of the recipients actually choose to attend state colleges.
“His impact was inconsequential,” said Glen Koocher, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Committees. “People viewed his proposals as political talking points, and no one took Romney seriously. What he gets credit for is absolutely refusing to compromise on everything he wanted to do from the moment he took office, and some people think that’s commendable.”
James A. Peyser, former chairman of the state Board of Education under Romney who now serves as one of his campaign’s education policy advisers, defended Romney’s record, praising him for holding steadfast to high accountability standards despite pressure from unions and some legislators.
On the campaign trail, Romney proudly emphasizes Massachusetts’ national reputation for its stellar public K-12 education system. Bay State students routinely score at the top on national and international tests. But that achievement is largely credited to the state’s 1993 landmark education reform law that poured billions of dollars into schools, set academic standards, and spawned the standardized testing that Romney fiercely guarded.
When interest groups wanted him to delay or make exceptions to the law’s requirement that high school students, starting in 2003, pass tests in English and math in order to graduate, Romney refused to back down. He threatened to cut off tens of millions of dollars in education funding to New Bedford when its mayor announced that the local high school would grant diplomas to all seniors, regardless of whether they passed the tests.
Under Romney’s watch, a science test was eventually added as a graduation requirement. And the bar for what counted as a passing score also rose.
“There’s no question that some of the things he wanted to do did not make it,” Peyser said. “But he did strengthen and affirm high standards in Massachusetts.”
Overall test scores grew incrementally during Romney’s tenure. The achievement of non-native English speakers — a demographic whose progress Romney targeted during his gubernatorial campaign against bilingual education — barely budged.
Romney shied away from any mention of his support of abolishing bilingual education while delivering a major education policy speech in Washington in May to a group of Latino small business owners.
In the same 2002 election that brought Romney the governorship, Massachusetts voters passed a ballot measure to end the state’s 31-year-old bilingual education law, in which students learned academic subjects in their mother tongue for what was supposed to be less than three years, and instead teach students predominantly in English for up to a year before moving them into regular classrooms.
Romney has said he became an advocate of the ballot measure after discovering that many students assigned to bilingual education classes had in fact been born in this country. Some students would languish in bilingual classrooms for up to eight years, failing to quickly become fluent in English.
While Romney proclaimed English immersion a success in debates during the Republican primaries earlier this year and in his book, “No Apology” – citing immigrant parents who applauded the change – a Globe examination of the program in 2006 found the implementation of the law to be a failure, despite pockets of success.
In 2006, three years after the law Romney campaigned for went into effect, new state tests showed that 83 percent of students learning English as a second language in the third through twelfth grades could not read, write, speak or understand English well enough for regular classes after their first year in Massachusetts schools. Of those enrolled in state schools for at least three years, more than half still were not fluent.
Just last year, the US Department of Justice cited the state for violating federal law by poorly implementing English immersion and not mandating teacher training to help students overcome language barriers.
“Everybody knows that English language learners are the failure in the Massachusetts education story,” said Roger Rice,executive director of the Somerville-based Multicultural Education, Training and Advocacy. “In the debates, Romney did his thing, talking about getting kids to learn English. But it hasn’t been a success.’’
Peyser said the disappointing outcomes lie not with the law itself, but with schools’ haphazard implementation of the law. “It’s a fair criticism that the teachers across the Commonwealth have not received the kind of training or support they need to implement it effectively,” Peyser said.
While a lack of follow-through hobbled Romney’s embrace of English immersion, he succeeded in expanding charter schools, publicly funded experimental schools freed from many state and local rules that he felt provided a better alternative for parents disappointed by lackluster public schools.
To the delight of school choice advocates – and the chagrin of unions and some school system leaders — Romney vetoed a bill to place a moratorium on the opening of new charter schools. The number of charter schools rose from 46 to 59 during his time in office.
Romney is campaigning on expanding school choice beyond charters in an effort to set himself apart from President Obama, who is also a charter schools advocate. Romney has moved towards a voucher-system that would allow federal funds to be used for private and for-profit online schools, on the grounds that it would give low-income, minority students better educational opportunities.
“This is the civil rights issue of our era,” Romney said during his Washington education speech in which he also criticized teacher unions for blocking changes.
Paul Toner, president of the Massachusetts Teachers Union, said Romney’s policies stalled during his term largely because of his aloof style and refusal to engage meaningfully with teachers, school committees, and superintendents.
“His practice was to announce policy by press release,” Toner said.
Ironically, some of what Romney unsuccessfully lobbied for has come to fruition in recent years, after once having been deemed too radical. Student test results are now a component of teacher evaluations. The state cap restricting the number of charter schools has been lifted in the lowest-performing school systems. And recently the state’s largest teachers union agreed to cede significant seniority rights that help determine how teachers are promoted and assigned.
The key difference is the willingness of Governor Deval Patrick, a Democrat, to collaborate, said state Representative Patricia Haddad, who was co-chairwoman of the Joint Education Committee during Romney’s governorship.
“Romney wanted to give out his ideas and just snap and expect them to be implemented,” said Haddad, a Democrat. “He didn’t want to do the groundwork. He was here to look for his next job.”
Tracy Jan can be reached at email@example.com.