(The Root) — When Mitt Romney began ramping up his education agenda last month, it appeared that he was positioning the issue of failing schools — which he billed "the civil rights issue of our era" — as one for making inroads with African-American and Latino voters.
In the same week, Romney delivered an education-policy speech to the Latino Coalition in which he vowed to give every low-income family a chance to attend the school of their choice, visited a charter school in a black West Philadelphia neighborhood to highlight his reform agenda and named Rod Paige, an African-American former secretary of education, as his campaign's special adviser on education.
Yet Paige downplays the idea that Romney had any particular PR goal in mind when visiting, say, inner-city Philadelphia. "I don't think that Gov. Romney would be pigeonholing any particular ethnic community. He wants to promote school choice in general where there's basic need," Paige told The Root.
"And he knows that many of the children who have greater needs attend schools that are populated primarily by low-income students and, in many cases, students who are African American, Hispanic and from other minority groups. He's going to be broad enough to tend to all of these needs, which will require additional exposure in schools like that."
Paige continued, though, that Romney's advocacy of school choice, especially through the expansion of charter schools, is a policy that would stand to benefit chiefly communities of color. Bolstering support for charter schools, he noted, is one policy that the Obama administration and the Romney team actually have in common. It's also a point of contention for opponents who emphasize research showing that most charter schools perform the same as, or worse than, traditional public schools.
"We don't think there's any one silver bullet that is a solution. It is a very complex undertaking, but we think that charters are a major part of the solution because they provide parents choice," said Paige, pointing out that parents of means are afforded options.
"There are millions of parents out there who don't have the financial means to make those kinds of choices, but who care just as much about their children as affluent people do. Social justice requires that we provide poor parents the same opportunities that any other parent should have."
As for studies that point to underperforming charter schools — a 2009 Stanford University study, for example, found that academic growth in 37 percent of charter schools is significantly worse than in traditional public schools — Paige counters that he is not suggesting that all charters are superior.
"Charter schools that are not cutting the mustard should no longer be schools — and by the way, that's a factor that public schools don't have," he said. "You can't walk away from a public school that you don't feel is benefiting your child. That's why charters are a strong part of the solution."
Cynthia Gordy is The Root's senior political correspondent.