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Restoring the middleman to higher education

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One of the overlooked accomplishments of President Obama's term is the reform of the student-loan system -- an effort that was decades in the making, but had been blocked by Republicans and bank lobbyists until 2010.

Under the old system, the student-loan industry received billions in taxpayer subsidies to provide a service the government could perform for less. As Rachel explained on the show a month ago, in 2010, Democrats removed the middleman, streamlined the process, saved taxpayers a ton of money, and helped more young people get college degrees.

Yesterday, Mitt Romney unveiled a new education agenda, which vows to bring the middleman back.

Mr. Romney's speech was almost entirely focused on K-12 education. But in his policy paper, he called for restoring private lenders to the subsidized college loan market. Congress passed a law in 2010 at Mr. Obama's urging that eliminated government fees paid to private banks, an estimated savings of $68 billion over 10 years, which was channeled into Pell grants for the poorest students.

Sure, Obama's reforms save taxpayer money and help more young people go to college, but by streamlining the process, Democrats have cut into bank profits -- and that can't stand.

Taken together, it's quite a pitch Romney has to make to young adults and their families: a Romney administration will cut Pell Grants, make it harder to get student loans, and encourage students who struggle with tuition costs to "shop around" until they can find a college they can afford.

The former governor recently said, "I don't see how a young American can vote for, well, can vote for a Democrat." Yeah, it's quite the mystery.

That wasn't the only thing we learned about Romney's education agenda yesterday. The Republican, in the midst of an extended harangue against teachers unions*, also endorsed school vouchers.

From the address:

"As President, I will give the parents of every low-income and special needs student the chance to choose where their child goes to school. For the first time in history, federal education funds will be linked to a student, so that parents can send their child to any public or charter school, or to a private school, where permitted. And I will make that choice meaningful by ensuring there are sufficient options to exercise it.

"To receive the full complement of federal education dollars, states must provide students with ample school choice."

Vouchers generally aren't popular, and have repeatedly been voted down when put on statewide ballots, so Romney's position may not do him any favors with voters.

What's more, the track record on voucher programs is poor -- "experiments" in Ohio, Wisconsin, Florida, and D.C. all led to waste, mismanagement, and test scores that failed to improve. Of course, Romney is less concerned with results and more concerned with privatizing American education.

Making matters even worse, Matt Yglesias took a closer look at a related Title 1 proposal. After some kids take the voucher and run, remaining kids in the underfunded public school will "have the option to use federal funds to purchase supplemental tutoring or digital courses from state-approved private providers rather than receiving Title I services from their district."

That's far more problematic than it might sound.

For on-the-ball parents, this should work out fine. Having each family shop separately for education services sounds pretty inefficient, but well-organized families will probably team up to buy some small group lessons or whatever. It'll be an extra hassle to shoulder additional responsibilities in this regard, but some people will appreciate the extra flexibility and one way or another people will do what they have to do for their kids.

But the kind of kids who are worst-served by the existing school system -- kids experiencing family disruption and who low-income and often poorly educated parents themselves -- are going to be very poorly served by this idea. Neither a single mom who dropped out of high school and is trying to raise three kids on a minimum wage job, nor a pair of Mexican immigrants with no English literacy are going to do a great job of hiring an algebra tutor for their children. The overall Romney budget framework implies such a steep drop in per student Title I and IDEA money one way or another that the specific details of how he'd dole it out are less relevant than they might otherwise be, but the basic concept here seems almost willfully indifferent to the problems facing low-socioeconomic status families.

I don't imagine education policy is likely to drive the 2012 election, but if it does, and voters get engaged on the issue, Romney will have to defend a tragically flawed agenda.

* When President Obama urges millionaires to pay slightly more in taxes, he's being divisive and pitting Americans against each other. When Romney attacks public school teachers, he's bringing people together.