Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney usually hesitates to remind voters that he hails from one of the bluest states in the union. But when it comes to Massachusetts schools, commonly ranked first or second among the 50 states’ public education systems, the Republican is happy to step up and take credit. But what did Romney do for Bay State schools?
In the introduction to a Romney campaign white paper laying out the candidate’s education policies, Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush notes, “During [Romney's] time as governor of Massachusetts, the state’s students became the first to lead the nation in both reading and math in both fourth and eighth grade.” While it’s not entirely clear what Bush is referring to, the “first” here is most likely an honor by default, as Romney’s single gubernatorial term coincided with the earliest test results released under No Child Left Behind. That law, one of President George W. Bush’s signature accomplishments (for better or worse), was the first to require nationwide standardized testing in fourth and eighth grades. In truth, Massachusetts’s scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress had been above the national average for more than a decade when Romney took office, a record largely attributable to the state’s 1993 education reform law, which predates Romney’s tenure by nine years.
Did Romney contribute to these great test results by expanding charter schools, as the campaign implies? Doubtful. Charters have had mixed results nationwide, but in any case the share of Massachusetts children enrolled in charters is just over 3 percent (.xls). Did Romney’s failed attempt to install a merit pay system help motivate teachers to work harder? No, even if the state’s teachers union hadn’t defeated it, studies have shown merit pay doesn’t work.
What Massachusetts really demonstrates is the importance of money to education– and that’s a lesson Republicans continue to resist. As an education reporter in California, I witnessed firsthand what happens when schools are chronically underfunded due to a shortsighted tax law: middle school classrooms jammed with forty kids, decrepit buildings, a near-absence of art, music and P.E. Now I live in Massachusetts, where we spend 50 percent more per pupil than California does. No, money is not a panacea– after all, D.C. splurges on schools with little yet to show for it– but states have to invest in education if they want to see students succeed.
Romney, who clearly knows the value of a buck, was governor when Massachusetts made the deepest education cuts per pupil of any state between 2002 and 2004. But that’s not the part of his record that he wants to talk about.