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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. The right to choose the school you want your child to attend has been the subject of court battles and bitter political debates. In the run-up to the election, both President Barack Obama and Republican nominee Mitt Romney have made school choice a cornerstone of their efforts to reform public education.

As part of our ongoing series Solve This, which examines how the next president may tackle big problems, NPR's Claudio Sanchez looks at what Mr. Obama and Mr. Romney have proposed to give low income children more educational options.

CLAUDIO SANCHEZ, BYLINE: Mitt Romney says he wants to give every student trapped in a failing school the chance to attend a better school. He supports private school vouchers in states where they're allowed, but his main focus is on creating more public school choices. He says he'll make sure the billions of dollars the federal government spends on low-income kids goes to the schools parents choose.

MITT ROMNEY: For the first time in history, federal education funds will be linked to the student so that parents can send their child to any public or charter school of their choice.

NINA REESE: It's definitely a bold idea. It's a new idea.

SANCHEZ: Nina Reese heads the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools and until recently was a top adviser to the Romney campaign.

REESE: Governor Romney's agenda would really push the envelope on school choice much further by requiring that in exchange for receiving federal dollars, that district make added choices available, including open enrollment.

SANCHEZ: It means parents would be allowed to choose schools outside their attendance zones or communities. But Rick Hess, of the conservative American Enterprise Institute, says there's a problem with that idea.

RICK HESS: Reality is, a lot of schools don't necessarily want these kids. You're bringing in kids from low-performing schools. These kids are going to drag down your performance. Even if all of these federal dollars come in a backpack with the kid, we're talking maybe $2,500 to $3,000 a kid at the outside.

SANCHEZ: Hess argues that's just not enough money to entice good schools, especially in the suburbs, to take low-income kids from struggling, inner-city schools. The other problem Romney's school choice proposal faces is within his own party. Many Republicans would rather not have the federal government involved in education at all. Again, Rick Hess.

HESS: Part of the tension for Governor Romney is how do you balance this notion of using federal dollars and federal leverage to expand options and expand choice without writing, you know, statute and writing policy with a very heavy hand?

SANCHEZ: Having the federal government play a big role in education is not a problem for President Obama, but his school choice plan has created lots of tension within his party. Mr. Obama has called on states to remove the caps many have placed on charter schools so more can open every year.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: I called for a doubling in our investment in charter schools so that students and parents have choices within the public school system because I believe in public schools.

RICHARD ROTHSTEIN: I don't see choice as being a panacea.

SANCHEZ: Richard Rothstein is with the liberal Economic Policy Institute. He says President Obama has hitched his education agenda to privately run, publicly funded charter schools, despite their poor record.

ROTHSTEIN: We know now that charter schools for disadvantaged children don't perform any better on average than regular public schools with disadvantaged children. In fact, they perform slightly worse on average.

SANCHEZ: That's just one reason many people in Obama's party have been critical. Liberal Democrats and teachers unions, after all, view charters and school choice as the privatization of public education and a huge distraction from the problem of concentrated poverty that makes it so hard for teachers to teach and kids to learn. Again, Richard Rothstein.

ROTHSTEIN: If we want to improve the education of disadvantaged children, we've got to get them to a school in good health, with the experience of high quality early childhood programs where they get the kinds of literacy experiences that middle-class children get. Then moving them around from one school to another in the ghetto is not going to make a difference.

SANCHEZ: To school choice advocates, however, it won't matter who wins in November, either candidate will be a friend in the White House. Claudio Sanchez, NPR News.

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