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Asked nearly half a dozen times whether or not he would overturn President Obama’s decision to stop deporting undocumented youth, affording them the opportunity to pursue higher education, careers in the armed services, and temporary work permits, Mitt Romney danced around the question as though he were auditioning for a guest role on ABC Family’s new show, “Bunheads.”

tutoring mitt

Fancy footwork aside, no one has ever called the Republican presidential hopeful, relatable, or accused him of being a smooth talker. His missteps while pursuing the brass ring of politics, (a.k.a. becoming the candidate voters “want to have a beer with”) have plagued him since “Let Detroit go bankrupt.” I wasn’t shocked when the Romney digital team created a free downloadable app for tablets and smartphones entitled, “A Better Amercia,” (as opposed to “A Better America”).

Despite an otherwise stellar reputation, when Eric Fehrnstrom, (a.k.a. Mitt Romney’s David Axelrod) totally stepped in it with his “Etch A Sketch” gaffe, I was in no way astonished. After “Corporations are people, my friend,” the $10,000 bet, Cookiegate, the tale of Seamus, the Irish setter, (a.k.a. the dog on the roof) “I like being able to fire people,” “I’m not concerned about the very poor,” “I have some friends who are NASCAR team owners,” and other flubs fit for a top ten list, it’s no surprise the Obama campaign has chosen to diffuse its own problematic sound bite by stringing a line of Romney gems together.

That said, I am overwhelmingly confused by Mitt Romney’s inability to get it right when it comes to talking about public education. After Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush attacked organized labor entities representing teachers in an unsuccessful manner, sophisticated anti-union advocacy efforts emerged, like those led by the Center for Union Facts, Heritage Foundation, and Public Service Research Foundation. The work of organizing community groups to pressure to organized labor leaders into negotiating concessions has been done in Illinois, Washington, Colorado, and most recently Massachusetts by nonprofits like Jonah Edelman’s Oregon-based, Stand for Children.

Michelle Rhee, who founded The New Teacher Project in 1997, dawned the cover of TIME magazine in 2008, and now leads StudentsFirst, has built her entire career on butting heads with anyone who dares to defend policies like “last in, first out.” And Davis Guggenheim’s union-unfriendly documentary, “Waiting for Superman” was so successful at turning its nationwide theater run, promotional screenings, and traveling townhalls into a social action campaign unifying conservatives, progressives, and moderates in the belief American public education needed fixing, that Oprah Winfrey devoted a sizeable percentage of her last year on network television to spotlighting the film’s proposed solutions.

If the Romney campaign wanted to get the public on board by confronting the education policies advocated by organized labor, all it needed to do was quote what has already worked for other folks.

This is not to say that Jonah Edelman, Michelle Rhee, Davis Guggenheim, Oprah Winfrey, or the majority of the folks who already agree with their approach to reforming public education are likely Romney voters, quite the opposite. After all, President Obama has gone “all in” when it comes to positing policy prescriptions for everything from preschool to post-graduate education. The Romney campaign is at a serious disadvantage when it comes to "devil in the details" discussions about education policy, especially in areas of overlap with President Obama’s policies on immigration, (read DREAM Act) as well as employment (read STEM jobs).

Nevertheless, President Obama, and his Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, have faced tough criticism for backing performance evaluations for teachers that necessarily require reform in pay, tenure, and seniority structures.

In the Second City—ground zero of President Obama’s reelection campaign—98% of teachers recently voted to authorize an all-out strike should collective bargaining negotiations with Chicago Public Schools fail to reach an acceptable agreement.

In New York, the battle over public access to the value-added metrics being employed in teacher evaluations went all the way to the State Supreme Court.

In California, the Los Angeles County Superior Court just issued a ruling, (that will reverberate far and wide) obligating LAUSD—the nation’s second largest school district—to base teacher evaluations, in part, on student standardized test scores. A decision that arrived when tensions between labor leaders and the Democratic National Committee were already coming to a head as a result of the Obama campaign’s decision to hire a staff member from the union-unfriendly Parent Revolution to serve as their California Press Secretary.

If the raison d'être of the Romney campaign were to foment disappointment and discontent by fanning the flames of President Obama’s enthusiasm gap, then these are the sorts of wounds they could’ve rubbed salt in.

Instead, the Romney campaign backed proposals to reduce grants to fund higher education by 25% and eliminate 48% of the K-12 education and training budget. Mitt Romney told a high school senior in Ohio, “I’m not going to promise that [help to pay for college]… And don’t expect the government to forgive the debt you take on.”

He stood in front of the Latino Coalition’s Annual Economic Summit in Washington D.C. and called for cutting Title I and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) funding, in order to pay for a voucher system intended to promote private-schools above their publicly funded counterparts. And followed up that (opposite of tour de force) performance by getting into an argument with teachers at the Universal Bluford Charter School in Philadelphia over class size.

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In front of every camera and reporter imaginable, Steven Morris, one of eleven handpicked educators and school leaders selected to join Romney at a roundtable discussion said, “I can’t think of any teacher in the whole time I have been teaching—13 years—who would say that more students [in the classroom] would benefit. And I can’t think of a parent that would say ‘I would like my teacher to be in a room with a lot of kids and only one teacher.’ So I’m wondering where this research comes from.”

These moments were all awkward. But none was the pièce de résistance in the rollout of Romney’s education policy proposals.

On June 8, the GOP nominee was in a position to knock one out of the park. Both the Romney campaign, and the Republican National Committee, hit President Obama with ads highlighting an incredibly poor choice of words, exactly mirroring the ones that kneecapped John McCain during the 2008 campaign.

Romney could’ve stepped up to the microphone and said, “If the private sector were doing just fine teachers wouldn’t be losing their jobs, high school students wouldn’t be afraid of borrowing in order to pay for college, and recent graduates would walk off the stage diploma in hand, and set off on their own. Instead there are no jobs for teachers, or their students, and young men and women who should be setting off on their own are coming home, and their parents have to decide whether to pay the underwater mortgage, the credit cards, or to feed, shelter, and transport their kids so they can compete for an unpaid internship that may or may not lead to the paycheck they need to leave the nest.”

He didn’t say this, not at all. There was no joy in Mudville—mighty Romney struck out at bat:

[Obama] wants to hire more government workers… says we need more firemen, more policemen, more teachers… Didn’t he get the message…? It’s time for us to cut back on government!

George W. Bush did not win a majority of voters of color. But he did successfully use the passage of No Child Left Behind as a lever to win over greater support from African American, and Latino voters in 2004 than he enjoyed in 2000.

Facing sizeable deficits with Latino voters, unmarried women, and African Americans, the Romney campaign could have embraced a reinterpreted form of compassionate conservatism, and embraced an all-encompassing, commitment to combat the “soft bigotry of low expectations” found in America’s schools through the reauthorization of Bush’s federally decreed, but locally administered act. This would have been well received by civil rights groups concerned with the educational wellbeing of the socioeconomically poor and children of color, who are currently seeking bipartisan support for such a move.

Not only did Romney flub an unprecedented opportunity to label President Obama as “out of touch” on pocketbook issues, in one fell swoop, he undid all of the work his supporters undertook to make education a winning issue for him in the 2012 campaign.

Insert the sound of a sad trombone here.

After several years of working as a teacher, I left my Title I public school classroom and began a career as a political staffer. On the very first day, of my very first job, I asked a lead campaign consultant a “why” question during a private aside. In as nonchalant a tone as anyone has ever used in offering a one-sentence response, I was told the following: “The answer to that, and any other queries that pop into your head during this race—or the next one—is, despite what they pay folks like me, campaigns always adopt the flaws of the candidate.”

unai montes-irueste

Never before has this adage seemed so true.

As conservative curmudgeon, George Will, put it, “We all thought the big problem for Romney might be his Mormonism and it might be the Massachusetts healthcare plan. That’s not it. Mitt Romney’s problem is somehow his ‘Romneyness.’ That is the fact that people are just not connecting with him.”

Unai Montes-Irueste

Posted: Wednesday, 20 June 2012