Mitt Romney launched his foray into education by visiting the Universal Bluford charter school in West Philadelphia, an impoverished, largely African-American neighborhood. He went to tout his plan for vouchers and charters as the new civil rights crusade of our era.
While there, thinking he was in friendly territory, he made some unfortunate remarks. First, he asserted that class size wasn’t important. That is no doubt the advice he had received from his advisors, who like to claim that having a “great teacher” is far more important than class size reduction. Then, he advised his listeners that one of the keys to education success is to be a child of a two-parent family. He got called out on both comments.
A music teacher rebuked him on the class size issue, saying: “I can’t think of any teacher in the whole time I’ve been teaching, over 10 years — 13 years — who would say that more students would benefit them. And I can’t think of a parent that would say ‘I would like my kid to be in a room with a lot of kids,’” Morris said. “So I’m kind of wondering where this research comes from.”
His advice about having a two-parent family was not well received. It’s the kind of analysis one expects to hear in a think tank discussion, but not the advice you offer to a community that deals with real-life circumstances rather than academic speculation.
When challenged to explain his comments on class size, Romney said that the global consulting firm McKinsey concluded that class size doesn’t matter. Of course, it mattered a lot to the Romney family. Mitt Romney went to the Cranbrook School in Michigan, where class size is said to be less than 6:1. His children also went to an elite private school, and elite private schools are known for small classes.
Parent activist Leonie Haimson called on President Obama (for whom she worked in 2008) to take a stand on the class size issue. She wrote an open letter to the President, asking him to repudiate comments by Secretary Arne Duncan that sounded no different from what Romney had said. Secretary Duncan is a graduate of the University of Chicago Lab School, where class size is 10:1. Just a year ago, Bill Gates set off a firestorm among teacher bloggers when he said that better teachers were more important than smaller classes. Gates went to Lakeside School in Seattle, where classes are never more than 16.
I propose a rule for advocacy by politicians and academic experts: Never advocate for other people’s children what you are unwilling to accept for your own.