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Mitt Romney on education 2012
MItt Romney (Photo by Gage Skidmore)

Likely Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney focused on education this week, releasing a 35-page plan outlining his education platform and giving a speech on education to the Latino Coalition of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce on Wednesday. Below, we scrutinize some of Romney’s claims.

Statement:

“Among developed countries, the United States comes in 14th of 34 in reading, 17th of 34 in science, and an abysmal 25th out of 34 in math.”

The Facts: Needs more context

Romney was referring to the results of the 2009 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), which was given to 15-year-olds around the globe. The United States’ performance is often cited by politicians, including President Barack Obama, as an indicator that the country’s education system is doing poorly. But the results may not be so black and white, according to a summary of the results by the National Center for Education Statistics. In reading, for instance, although the United States was ranked 14th among Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries, only six countries had scores that were significantly higher than that of the U.S. The remaining seven countries ranked ahead of us had scores that, statistically speaking, were indistinguishable from America’s. In science, though, 12 OECD countries had scores that were measurably higher, and in math that number was 17. Out of the 64 countries that took part in the assessment, nine had significantly higher average scores in reading, 18 in science and 23 in math.

Statement:

“After three months, students [in Washington, D.C.’s Opportunity Scholarship Program] could already read at levels 19 months ahead of their public-school peers.”

The Facts: It takes years, not months

The Opportunity Scholarship Program (OSP), started in 2004, allows students in Washington, D.C. to apply for scholarships to cover private-school tuition. The Obama administration has repeatedly tried to cut funding for the program—something Romney opposes. Romney’s claim here is off by a factor of 12; it actually took three years for students to make the gains he was speaking about. A 2009 study by the U.S. Department of Education showed that one group of students—those enrolled in the program for three years—had the equivalent of 14 to 19 months of extra learning in reading compared to their public-school peers. For students enrolled for shorter periods of time, the gains ranged from three to five months of extra learning. And as for math performance, there was no significant difference among program participants and their public-school peers. A 2010 study concluded that there was no “evidence that the OSP affected student achievement. On average, after at least four years students who were offered (or used) scholarships had reading and math test scores that were statistically similar to those who were not offered scholarships.” The same study did find, however, that students who received the scholarships were more likely than non-recipients to graduate from high school.

Statement:

“The two major teachers unions take in $600 million each year. That’s more revenue than both of the political parties combined. In 2008, the National Education Association spent more money on campaigns than any other organization in the country. And 90 percent of those funds went to Democrats.”

The Facts: Numbers may be off a bit

It’s difficult to quantify how much the National Education Association (NEA) and American Federation of Teachers (AFT) take in annually—each has many state and local affiliates that file their own 990 forms. In 2010, the NEA reported over $352 million in revenue on its tax filings. The AFT brought in $162.7 million. Historically, both organizations have had a large political presence and have favored Democratic candidates. According to OpenSecrets.org, which labels the political action committees (PACs) of both unions as “heavy hitters,” the NEA did top the list of national donors in 2007-2008, spending $56,228,408. The bulk of this money—$53.5 million—was spent at the state level, and about $36.7 million of it went to specific ballot initiatives rather than particular candidates. In 2008, the NEA’s PAC gave 91 percent of its money to Democrats. When it comes to total NEA donations, however—including to other PACs, as well as to candidates from both parties—Romney was slightly off: 86 percent of the NEA’s money went to Democrats.

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Sarah Butrymowicz oversees and contributes to The Hechinger Report’s investigative and data work covering all levels of education, from early childhood to K-12 to higher education. She has worked at...

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