Mitt Romney is right about one thing: Too many American children do receive what he this week called a "Third World education." A disproportionate number of them are children of color. It is indeed "the civil rights issue of our era." It is also the economic issue and the security issue.
Sadly, Romney doesn't have a single new idea about what to do about it.
Romney's first problem in dealing with education is not unique to education. In a recent speech to a group of donors in Florida, he said he was going to drastically cut the Department of Education or fold it into another department.
In a speech to Latinos this week in Washington, he didn't say a word about such cuts, much less about eliminating the department. No candidate these days has to be more careful about saying the same thing no matter where he is than the man known in Massachusetts as "Multiple-Choice Mitt."
As for his other proposals, they range from the tried and true but tired to the tired and never true. I've been involved with the charter school movement for decades. Many (but not all) charter schools offer their students choices, opportunities, and new approaches that are lacking in big urban schools. No administration has been more supportive of charter schools than this one.
But get serious: You can't change American education one charter school at a time. You can't build enough charter schools to deal with the biggest civil rights issue of our era.
Romney is against failing schools. Who isn't? But what's striking is that he doesn't actually want to do anything about them — unless you count handing out grades as doing something. The Obama administration went so far as to support the mass firing of teachers at a failing Rhode Island school. Romney, it seems, opposes takeovers in favor of report cards.
Get serious: What are poor, uneducated parents supposed to do on their own?
Send their kids to a private school, of course. Echoing one of the conservative applause lines of the past century, Romney urged that parents should be able to send their children to any public school in the state "or a private school where permitted by law."
Get serious: How many well-financed (through local property taxes) suburban schools are going to be rolling out the welcome mat for both economically and educationally disadvantaged students? How many private schools can afford to educate these kids for the amount that would follow them in federal dollars?
Where I live, the Catholic schools are bursting at the seams, and the suburban schools are tightening the noose on out-of-town parents who try to get their kids in using a work address or a relative's address. Does Romney think the answer is to find some buses and then try to figure out where to send the kids in them?
Of course Romney is eager to unload on the teachers' unions. Sure, there are some union leaders who are resistant to change, but an increasing number of teachers — including members and leaders of the unions — are in the trenches trying to fix their schools.
There are bad apples in every barrel (yes, even in the political barrels), but the bigger problem in education these days is that half of the teachers wash out in their first five years. Keeping teachers, not firing them, is the more important challenge — even if it isn't the better applause line.
I'm old enough to remember when the first George Bush declared that he was going to be "the education president." The kindest thing I can say is that he wasn't. He also raised taxes. Promises. Promises.
A real debate about education would be a welcome addition to this campaign. But Romney will have to go beyond the old ideas and the old applause lines he was using this week and get serious about educational policy if he wants to be a part of such a debate.
Susan Estrich is a best-selling author whose writings have appeared in newspapers such as The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and Washington Post, and she has been a commentator on countless TV news programs. Read more reports from Susan Estrich — Click Here Now.