Mitt Romney Moves Left With Education Plan. That'll Never Last.

Oh, man, and me a total Obamatoid! Am I going to have to vote for Mitt Romney? But he's already way to the left of Obama on education and batting 1.000 on one of my favorite themes, the need to integrate schools by class, not race.

For years there has been persuasive research out there arguing that race and ethnicity are the wrong matrix if you really want to do something to improve education for poor kids of all races and ethnicities. If you're looking for the thing that really determines educational destiny, it's class, or, as we call it here in the American meritocracy, cash.

It's also the one castle that affluent Americans have fought hardest to defend. Since Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, rich Americans have basically said, "You can hit us with all kinds of Robin Hood confiscation laws, you can have your way with our wallets, but do not ever, repeat, EVER, cross that school-district line."

That was why busing failed. The courts made the buses stop at the school district lines. White people went to one side of the line. Minorities stayed on the other. Segregation has grown, not diminished.

Guess what line Romney just jumped right over? Everybody from The New York Times op-ed page to Education Week to The Washington Post to The Christian Science Monitor is buzzing about a Romney education speech in Washington May 23 in which he proposed the nation's first cross-district public school voucher system:

"As President," Romney told a Latino group, "I will give the parents of every low-income and special-needs student the chance to choose where their child goes to school. For the first time in history, federal education funds will be linked to a student, so that parents can send their child to any public or charter school, or to a private school, where permitted. And I will make that choice meaningful by ensuring there are sufficient options to exercise it."

Reporters who have parsed the speech with Romney staffers all have come away agreeing that Romney is proposing a plan which will allow any student to choose from any school district or public charter school.

Most reporters who covered the speech didn't catch it right away. Romney spent a lot of time in that speech beating up on Obama for his ties to teacher unions, and that was what made the first round of headlines.

But when the education press went back over the road Romney had traveled in his speech, they realized there was an improvised explosive device buried in the shoulder: Even if Romney dials back and tries to soften this in days ahead -- and he will, probably today, because of the Times op-ed piece -- the fact remains that Mitt Romney just took a shot at the castle.

He's saying federal school dollars should follow the student, and the student should be able to carry those dollars across district lines to attend any school district where there's room for him.

The implications are huge. Go to the Texas Education Agency website for school performance reports, look up the Dallas school system and then look up Highland Park's public school system. In Dallas, 87.1 percent of public school students are "economically disadvantaged." In the Highland Park schools, the percentage is zero.

Richard D. Kahlenberg of the Century Foundation, called the "intellectual father of the economic integration movement," is one of a growing number of scholars who have been amassing evidence that economic difference is destiny in terms of school performance and that the best way to get a poor kid's scores up is to put him in a classroom with affluent kids.

There is also lots of evidence to show that the Great White Fear of lowered standards and diminished achievement in integrated classrooms is exactly wrong and upside down. My own alma mater, The University of Michigan, has been churning out research for years that shows that white kids, who come from the most segregated environments of all ethnic groups, get smarter when exposed to diversity.

If nothing else in the case of Highland Park, exposure to some diversity before they leave the bubble might help HP kids avoid that awful scene on the first day at Yale when they rush back out of the dorm to the curb where parents are still schlepping bags out of the rental car and squeal, "Daddy, Daddy, there's a black person in my room!"

Oh, well, anyway, isn't it wonderful to find the Republican candidate for president pumping this idea? Doesn't that mean loyal Republicans will have to get behind him on it?

Or does it mean ...? No! Tell me he's not going to open his campaign as the presumptive candidate with a big old loud belly-flopper of a flip-flop! That's seems like the one thing he can't afford to do. Nah. He can't do that.

So I think we've got him. No matter how much his campaign starts wriggling on this, a Republican candidate for president of the United States has just fired the first cannon shot across school district boundaries.

He's shootin' at the castle, man. I love it. Mitt Romney -- the man who stuck it to the bubble. That image alone is enough to make me swoon.

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Jim Schutze has been the city columnist for the Dallas Observer since 1998. He has been a recipient of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies’ national award for best commentary and Lincoln University’s national Unity Award for writing on civil rights and racial issues. In 2011 he was admitted to the Texas Institute of Letters.
Contact: Jim Schutze