In making multiple visits to Philadelphia, Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney has shown he isn’t afraid to take the fight deep inside a longtime Democratic stronghold. And Romney’s campaign is attacking President Barack Obama’s stance on the one issue most critical to the majority of Philadelphians: public education.
Romney visited Guion S. Bluford Elementary School in West Philadelphia — a Renaissance School matched with a “turnaround” team led by Universal Companies and its founder, Kenny Gamble — on Thursday. In declaring that African-American schools need more money, Romney ripped a page from Obama’s playbook by bringing the conversation to the group of people affected the most.
The Republican presidential candidate visited the school a day after declaring education is the “civil rights issue of our era.”
Romney repeated that declaration during the school visit, but struggled to defend his view that class sizes aren’t a major factor in educational success. Local African-American leaders also said his push for more two-parent families isn’t realistic in their community.
As of press time, officials with Universal haven’t returned calls seeking comment. The School District of Philadelphia also wasn’t aware of Romney’s visit. Bluford sits in City Councilman Curtis Jones’ 4th district, and during Thursday’s Council meeting, Jones voiced his displeasure at both Romney’s low-key visit, and the presidential hopeful’s stance on education.
“Unbeknownst to many people [Romney] was here this morning at Bluford Elementary school where he was espousing his ‘class sizes don’t matter’ and everybody knows, even internally, size matters — class sizes,” Jones said, thanking his Republican colleagues on council for not meeting up with the former Massachusetts governor.
Jones said he only became aware of Romney’s visit through an update on KWY newsradio. Mayor Michael Nutter and District Attorney Seth Williams joined a rally outside of Bluford, condemning Romney’s stances — and for creeping quietly into Philadelphia.
In advance of his visit, Romney and his election campaign have simultaneously attacked Obama’s stance as elitist while urging districts to do away teacher unions.
“You know, President Obama likes to talk about how he’s for the underprivileged, but when it comes to the money that comes from the teachers union, he’s putting that campaign cash ahead of the needs of our kids. We have to recognize it’s time to put kids first, to get education on track by giving people greater choice in schools, by making sure we reward the very best teachers with great careers and rising income,” Romney said via a statement released by his campaign. “We know what to do to make our schools better.”
Those remarks mirror what Romney recently told Fox News’ Stave Doocy. When asked about the president’s education agenda, Romney wasted little time in going into attack mode, pointing to a Washington, D.C., school choice program that Romney claims Obama and the teachers union shuttled.
“We have a teachers’ union that too often stands in the way of the kind of reforms that would make education work. We know, for instance, in Washington, D.C., that school choice there helped immeasurably with young people - improving their quality of learning and their skills, and yet the President shut down the program,” Romney said on the news program. “We’ve got to put the unions behind, and put the kids first.”
Philadelphia Federation of Teachers President Jerry Jordan assailed the notion that teacher unions are standing in the way of school reform. Jordan noted that the PFT has sacrificed and produced several rounds of givebacks during recent contract discussions. Jordan said there are other factors in union negotiations that either Romney doesn’t know about or fails to acknowledge.
“We have consistently [partnered with the district on cuts] and I would defy anyone from the board who suggests we haven’t been very effective in working with the district to keep health care costs as low as they can possibly be through negotiations,” Jordan said, during a recent editorial board meeting at The Tribune. “That’s a reality that all organizations have to build in; you shouldn’t ask people to work and not have health care.”
Lis Smith, a spokeswoman with President Obama’s reelection campaign, quickly responded to Romney’s visit to Philadelphia — and to the assertions Romney made; striking at Romney’s often-criticized business models and asking if the presidential hopeful will apply the same tactics to education as he did while at Bain Capital.
“When he’s in Philadelphia today, will Mitt Romney tell the truth about how he wants to apply Romney Economics to education? As we’ve seen throughout Mitt Romney’s career in both the private and public sectors, Romney Economics is all about the short term,” Smith said via a statement released by the Obama reelection campaign. “We’ve already seen what Romney Economics meant for Massachusetts students — larger class sizes, a de-emphasis on critical early education, teachers laid off, and in one year alone, the second-largest per-pupil cuts in the nation … these aren’t the priorities Americans want in our President.”
Tribune staff writer Eric Mayes and The Associated Press contributed to this report.
During a visit to a West Philadelphia charter school last week Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney said class size wasn’t significant in student achievement.
Steven Morris, a music teacher at the Universal Bluford Charter School that Romney was visiting, disputed the former Massachusetts governor’s assertion on class size.
“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 kids to be in a room with a lot of kids,” Morris said. “So I’m kind of wondering where this research comes from.”
Romney cited a study by the McKinsey consulting firm, which he said examined education systems in foreign countries and concluded that class size wasn’t a significant issue.
That study said teachers and parents’ involvement matter the most, which is different than saying class size does not matter.
Other studies including one by the University of Tennessee in the 1980s found small class size crucial to student success, especially in the early grades.
The study showed that smaller class sizes produced improvement in early learning, especially for Blacks and Latino students.
The Tennessee study showed smaller classes significantly outscored the larger classes on achievement tests.
Princeton economist Alan Krueger and other researchers have conducted more recent studies that they say confirm the validity of the Tennessee findings.
Most of the arguments against reducing class size are about costs and not whether smaller class size is significant to student success.
The debate about class size is timely and relevant.
Millions of public schools are seeing their class sizes sharply increase because of budget cuts and teacher layoffs.
A recent survey of more than half of Pennsylvania’s school districts shows more expect their finances to worsen next year resulting in many class sizes growing and course offering in core subjects shrinking.
The increase in class sizes and decreases in school budgets is a negative trend and harmful to the future of public education and the nation.
The fallout from Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney’s murky visit to Philadelphia last Thursday came swiftly, with the American Federation of Labor and Congress of International Organizations one of the first to assail Romney, not just for his clandestine drop-in, but for his stances on public education as well.
“Romney hasn’t offered any ideas that would help kids succeed in the classroom.” said Philadelphia AFL-CIO Secretary Treasurer Liz McElroy in a statement released by her office. “Blaming teachers is not an education policy.”
The AFL-CIO contends that Romney’s plan essentially revolves around blaming teachers and their unions for the struggles of school districts nationwide. The union organization also feels that Romney is entirely out of touch with the complex fiscal and academic issues facing the School District of Philadelphia.
As examples, the AFL-CIO outlined comments from Romney that seem to contradict the needs of various struggling school districts. Romney is often quoted saying smaller classrooms may hurt students and that teacher unions are standing in the way of education reform.
That flies counter to the classroom sizes at Cranbrook, Romney’s prestigious private school. According to the AFL-CIO, the average class size at Cranbrook is 14; the average class size in Pennsylvania public schools is 22.4.
The AFL-CIO also points to a damning report from the Boston Globe, that as governor of Massachusetts, Romney’s leadership led to the elimination of 14,500 teachers, police officers, librarians and other service provider positions.
Philadelphia Federation of Teachers President Jerry Jordan dismissed Romney out-of-hand for not understanding the unique problems facing Philadelphia public education, and for echoing the merits of the general cuts to education found in Governor Tom Corbett’s budget proposal.
“At a time when school budgets have been cut to the bone, Mitt Romney wants to take money out of our neighborhood public schools to spend on vouchers, private schools, charters and other gimmicks,” Jordan said. “Our schools need equitable and stable funding to improve student outcomes. They need collaboration, and not conflict, between teachers, parents and community leaders to improve achievement.”
Local elected officials remained outraged at the nature and scope of Romney’s visit.
Mayor Michael Nutter said it is “clear that Mitt Romney is out of touch with reality.” Nutter made those comments during Friday’s media session, helmed by the Obama for America-Pennsylvania. Nutter, along with District Attorney Seth Williams, led a protest outside Bluford Elementary School during Romney’s visit there.
“Romney visited our city where he continued to, for some reason, push his backwards and completely baffling ideas on public education,” Nutter said. “It is true that he wrote that smaller classes wouldn’t help. I don’t know what universe he’s operating in, but everyone knows small class sizes are preferable to larger ones — everybody knows that except Mitt Romney.
“And even confronted by people who do this for a living, he continues to argue with teachers, saying small class sizes are not the solution.”
District Attorney Seth Williams — who joined Nutter for Thursday’s rally and who also took part in the media session, said the correlation between crime and faulty education is real.
“I see daily as district attorney, the results of failed education policies… [Neighbors] were mad because they know the history of the Republicans who reduced Head Start programs,” Williams said. “Now we can debate on how to fund better teachers, but it’s nonsensical that larger class sizes would be better.”
Nutter didn’t want to guess at Romney’s reasons for coming to Philadelphia, but if Romney was trying to cull any favor with the residents of that hardscrabble and poverty-stricken neighborhood, chances are he failed mightily.
“I tend not to get into what [Romney’s] motivations are. He came, he saw, and did whatever he did. I don’t know what his strategy was, but the end result was he went to the school, took nice pictures and probably moved on,” Nutter said. “I don’t know what the motivation was, but he certainly left an impression in this city that he has no idea what he’s talking about.
“Ask a bunch of parents in virtually any city across America: no one is going to say, ‘I’d rather my kids be in a classroom with one teacher and 50 kids, as opposed to one teacher and 20 kids,’” Nutter continued. “You don’t need to be an education expert to figure that out. Some of this is just common sense.”