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Mitt Romney Chats with Brian Williams on 'Education Nation'

Governor Mitt Romney joined BrIan Williams live on stage at NBC News' "Education Nation" Summit this morning to discuss his ideas for the nation's education future and answer questions from Summit attendees, discussing what it will take to prepare all Americans for the high-skill jobs of the 21st century. The interview aired live on MSNBC at 11:00AM/ET. The Summit was held from Sept. 23-25 at The New York Public Library.

The full transcript is below. If used, mandatory credit "NBC News / Education Nation." Portions of the interview will air on "NBC Nightly News" tonight at 6:30 PM/ET. Video will be available at NBCNews.com and EducationNation.com.

WILLIAMS: We are very grateful that Governor Romney has - chosen to join us today. We have heard from the president so far today in his interview with Savannah Guthrie as Steve mentioned while he was appearing here on tape, he was at the podium over at the United Nations.

Governor Romney has asked to address you before we begin the Q&A. So he will to that. I will remain off to the side. I'll come up, lead the questioning. And then we will take audience questions from both microphones. So with our thanks for being here with us and addressing this topic that is so dear to us, and without delay, ladies and gentlemen, Governor Mitt Romney.

(APPLAUSE)

FORMER GOV. MITT ROMNEY, R-MA, PRESIDENTIAL NOMINEE: Thank you. It's an honor to be here with you and I appreciate the chance that NBC is giving us to come together to talk about a topic as important as the education of our children.

I also enjoy the chance to see BrIan Williams, a - an American hero. A real champion, a man of character and integrity. And it's an honor to be here with him, as well.

Let me take you back to my own experience. And I'm thinking of my children, my five sons. And the experience that I had in watching their education and participating in it. I was lucky to live in the state of Massachusetts because our state has and had at the time very good schools. As a matter of fact, I was pleased that while I was serving as governor, the NAEP exam which, as you know, tests our kids every two years, fourth graders, eight graders, in English and math, the results came back. Our fourth graders came out number one in the nation in English and also number one in math.

And our eighth graders came out number one in English and number one in math. So in all four of the federal measures that evaluate the effectiveness of schools, our kids were number one. That had never happened before. And I looked back to understand why our schools had become so successful. And I think it goes back to 1993 when my predecessors, Governor Weld, and the leaders of the Democratic House and Senate came together to reform education and they made a number of changes that I think are what helped drive our schools to be so successful.

One, they said, that to graduate from high school, a student was going to have to pass a graduation exam in English and math, and while I was governor, by the way, I added science to that, as well, so a graduation exam. Two, they worked on a statewide curriculum. It took a number of years to put that together but they had a series of elements they felt that students needed to learn.

Three, they would evaluate annually the success of various schools. All the schools actually. And if a school consistently fell below a passing grade, then the state had the capacity to step in, take over the school, remove its leadership, and actually remove elements of the union contract if they believed those elements interfered with the education of a child.

Beyond that, I had the chance not just to have this - if you will, the stick if you can't pass the graduation exam you can't graduate, I also worked to put in place a carrot, if you will, an incentive.

While I was governor, we were able to pass legislation that said that if you took the exam to graduate and you were among the top quarter in your high school in terms of the grade you got on that exam, then you were entitled to the John and AbiGail Adams Scholarship, which was four years tuition free at any Massachusetts public institution of higher learning.

Now that's not as generous as you might hope because in Massachusetts fees are a lot more than tuition. But it was nonetheless some help and support for young people to working to get at a higher education.

We also in that 1993 legislation opened the door to far more choice by offering a massive expansion in charter schools. That went along with our Catholic schools which had long offered extensive choice in Massachusetts. And perhaps the most important single thing I think from the education reform effort that went on was an increased focus on the teachers, on hiring the very best and brightest we possibly could, promoting them and giving them opportunities to be successful in the classroom.

Now my experience there was consistent with something I read as I was serving as governor. Because I wanted to find ways to keep our schools as good at least as - how I'd found them. And I read some work that was done by a group called the McKinsey Institute. McKinsey is a major international consulting firm, but they have a not-for-profit foundation which does research around the world.

And they looked at school systems all over the world, compared nations, which ones were successful, Finland as I recall, Singapore, Korea - South Korea, as well as places within the United States that were successful. And they looked at the Boston school system, for instance. And looked at all the differences between school districts and systems, and they came to this conclusion.

They said, first of all, within a normal band of population, that the classroom size didn't seem to be driving the quality of education, that - obviously at some extreme that would figure into it, be a major impact, but within the normal range that exists in schools, it wasn't classroom size that was driving it. Nor was it spending per student. They were surprised by both those things as they look around the world.

Their conclusion was that overwhelming the greatest determination or determiner of the - of the success of the school system was the quality of the teachers in the system and that the very best nations and districts in terms of education were those that found a way to attract the best and brightest to come in education.

They pointed out as I recall that in Finland, I think it was, that the teachers were drawn from the top 5 or 10 percent of college graduates and they pointed out that too often in our country we're not drawing from the very top and they tried to understand why that was. And pointed out that in other nations that drew from the very top, they had better starting salaries for teachers. And they promoted teachers based on their capacity and their skill, the ability they had to change lives in classrooms as opposed to their tenure alone.

They looked at our schools and felt that we were too - too focused on pensions and post-retirement benefits and tenure and not sufficiently focused on starting salaries and helping people get going in their life as they got a lot of student loans, they need those starting salaries to get going and also a system which promotes teachers based upon their success in the classroom.

I look at the federal level and understand that if I'm the next president of the United States as I hope to be, that I don't want to step in and try to run schools for local school districts or for states. Education is largely run at the state level. But I do believe that there is action I can take at the federal level that will have an impact on improving the quality of education. And it flows from my experience both as governor and from the experience that have studied education such as the McKenzie Institute.

And the proposals that I have are these: first of all, I would take IDEA and Title 1 money. You see, those are the federal funds that go to follow those special needs kids and low income kids. And that's about half the kids in America, receive federal funding from those two sources, one or the other of those two sources. I would link that money not to the school districts or to the state, but to the student, and say to the student you can take that money to the school of your choice. So you and your parents can decide what school you want to go to.

And that of course will drive a very different level of school choice than we have today. To help the parents make the choice of which school to send their child to, I would insist that schools are graded on a simple basis that parents can understand, A through F. The way Florida is done.

Florida has actually done quite a job in saying, how can we evaluate the success of schools and then give to students the opportunity to make the choice of which school they'd like to go to. I'm impressed - you know some of the statistics from Florida. Some have said, well, it's going to be hard for Hispanic students to be able to keep up with the rest of the population.

Not so. In Florida, by virtue of those two changes, if you had a state that was just comprised of the Hispanic students of Florida, well, that state would fall right in the middle, about rank number 25 of American states. And that's been in part because of these extraordinary improvements that have been brought into the school system in Florida.

So those are two things I would do at the federal level. Give students more choice, allow parents to have access of information about the quality of schools. And also to make sure that we create incentives for school districts and for states to offer more choice in schools, to take away the barriers to charter schools, to take away the barriers to cyber learning, to allow students to choose public schools, public charter schools, where it's allowed by law private schools, or cyber learning or even tutorial type sessions.

I want to provide incentive at the federal level to encourage states, to encourage new choice and new information for our parents.

Let me just make a comment about higher education, as well. Higher education is also essential to the success of our economy and to the wellbeing of so many of our fellow citizens. And we have excellent institutions of higher learning. I mean, it's - we're a model for the world.

But one trend in higher education gives me great concern and that's the rapid growth in the cost of tuition, the cost of higher education. And we're on an unsustainable path there. You can't continue to have higher education tuition grow at a multiple of the rate of inflation.

At some point something has to give. And we're going to have to find a solution. I have ideas myself in that regard, but I do believe this is something that just can't go on.

And related to that is the fact that people coming out of institutions of higher learning can't find jobs. And the combination of more and more expensive tuition and fewer and fewer job opportunities this last year with half of our kids graduating without being able to have a full-time job or one consistent with their degree, that's a real problem.

And those two combined must end or we'll have a real threat to our higher education system.

So I applaud the chance to be able to speak with you today, your willingness to be here. I am - I'm absolutely convinced that for us to maintain our leadership of the world economically, morally, militarily, diplomatically, that America must be the have the best schools in the world and today, with our kids performing at the bottom third or bottom quartile in science and math, that's simply not the case.

And I think we know the answer as to what it takes to fix our schools, is to invest in great teachers. Teachers are the answer. Thank you.

(APPLAUSE)

WILLIAMS: You've already have one, and a little bit of a luxury, I've asked for water for both of us.

ROMNEY: Thank you.

WILLIAMS: Thank you again for appearing here at our forum.

Let's begin with a story that was just in the news a few days ago from the city of Chicago and something very basic about education and labor.

In your view, should teachers be allowed to strike?

ROMNEY: I don't know that I would prevent teachers from being able to strike. I just think the most important aspect in being able to have a productive relationship between the teachers unions and the districts and the states that they're dealing with is that the person sitting across the table from them should not have received the largest campaign contributions from the teachers union itself.

We have a very unusual system in this country. It's not just related to teachers unions. It relates more broadly. But people are able to give - in the case of the Democratic Party, I don't mean to be terribly partisan, but I kind of am - in case of the Democratic Party, the largest contributors to the Democratic Party are the teachers unions, the federal teachers unions.

And so, if they can elect someone, then that person is supposed to be representing the public vis-a-vis the teachers union, but actually most of the money came from the teachers union. It's an extraordinary conflict of interest. That's something I think is a problem and should be addressed.

But allowing teachers to strike on matters such as compensation is a right that exists in this country, but I do believe we have to have a recognition that the person sitting across the table is representing the public and the students. Not the teachers union.

WILLIAMS: Another issue that came out of Chicago, Governor, in your view, what percentage of a teacher's salary should be determined by test scores?

ROMNEY: I don't know that there is a fixed percentage, but I do believe there should be some connection between the capacity of the teacher to move students grade level to grade level and their compensation. And how you measure that I'm sure we could learn from the experiences of different schools.

I saw a study that was done in Boston where they looked at a student in a classroom and how many of those students actually improved a full grade by the end of the year and there were some teachers that regularly moved virtually all of their students a full grade level or more. And there were other teachers who regularly were unable to do that.

My view is those that are able to do that should be able to be more highly compensated. And should also potentially become mentor teachers with additional compensation and those that are unable to do that should either develop that skill or perhaps find another path in the education world or another career all together. That's going to be few and far between that can't make it in the profession they've chosen.

But I do believe those that perform the best, however you determine is the most effective way to measure that, should have an opportunity for better compensation.

WILLIAMS: This is our third year outing, a third year a row for this conference. Early childhood education looms large as you might imagine in this conversation every year. And you know the stats about the achievement gap. You know all that can happen or doesn't happen in a child's life before kindergarten wraps their arms around the child, summer slide is a dynamic that puts kids behind. So, as a result, kids turn 6, 7 years old, they're already falling behind.

Any initiatives you would bring to early childhood education?

ROMNEY: Well, let me note something which I think almost goes without saying, but I will say it nonetheless, I remember being with a group of teaches again in Boston and I said, can you predict which students will stay in school and be successful and those that will drop out? And how early can you predict that? And the teachers all began nodding their heads.

And I said, well, you know, tell me what you have to say. They said, well, I don't know that I want to have this on camera. We had a camera in the room at the time. So the camera left.

And one said this, if a teacher/parent night, a parent/teacher night rather, if the parents show up, then the child will be just fine. If the parents don't show up night after night of parent/teacher conference, that kid probably won't make it through high school. The involvement of parents, and particularly where there could be two parents, is an enormous advantage for the child.

So both in terms of early education and continuing throughout their career having certainly an advantage to have two parents, but even then to have one parent that stays closely involved with the education of the child and can be at home in those early years of education can be extraordinarily important.

I also do believe that there are many programs that have been highly effective in early education. Right here in New York City, Geoffrey Canada has a program in Harlem that's been just remarkably successful in helping bring young people to a posture where they're ready to learn by the time school starts. And those types of efforts I think should be evaluated one by one, and we should encourage and support those that are most effective.

WILLIAMS: You were lucky enough to attend Cranbrook in suburban Detroit. As of this year, the cost of a full-ride year tuition is $38,900. Do you think we owe as a nation every pupil in America the equivalent of a $38,900 education every year?

ROMNEY: I don't know that a dollar number always equates to how effective the teacher is. I was delighted to have a terrific education at what was a private institution. That's not going to be available for the entire nation, but I know that there are teachers in the public system that are every bit as good, as those that are in the private system.

I remember my fourth grade teacher, Mrs. Clouse. She may have been the best teacher I ever had. And she was a person dedicated to helping her children develop the skills that they needed to succeed. And those helped me as I went on through school.

I don't know that I place a dollar figure upon it because, in fact, as I look at my own experience in my state of Massachusetts, dollar spending per pupil wasn't a very good determining factor of how well the student would do.

I remember at one point I looked at all the school districts in Massachusetts. We have 351 cities and towns. And I plotted spending per student against the achievement of the average student in each district. And because we test our kids every year, we could see which were the kids doing best in math, English and science.

And there was no relationship at all, interestingly, and as a matter of fact, the district that spent the most per pupil and had the smallest classrooms, Cambridge, Massachusetts, their kids were in the bottom 10 percent of our state performers.

So I realized it's not just money, that it is instead a focus in how you spend the money, attracting the best and brightest in the profession, promoting the very best, measuring the performance of students, giving the students the incentives to excel - that's why we put in place the John and AbiGail Adams Scholarship.

So I reject the idea that everybody has to have a, if you will, a Harvard expense level degree in order to be successful. I find a lot of people have degrees from a lot of different places, public and private, that are highly successful.

Some of the most successful in our nation, didn't even complete high school. That's a remarkable thing. But the key for me is - relates to great teachers and creating families that can support their child in education.

WILLIAMS: Let's talk about your school choice initiative. You and I last talked about it during our last interview in London, just prior to the Olympics. Maybe the antithesis of Cranbrook in Detroit is Denby High School, zip code 48224, highest number of returning prisoners into society of any place in the nation in that zip code. Among the highest in gang activity.

Until it was taken over, it had a 20 percent success in graduation rate. The kids in Denby who qualify to go to Cranbrook, if they've got a ride, if they've got a way to get there, let's assume they're going to jump at it.

Who is going to worry about Denby? Who is going to support Denby High School, say nothing of the physical plant - and so many of our schools are crumbling. What's your solution for Denby after the kids leave for better options?

ROMNEY: Well, I don't know Denby terribly well, but I was in Philadelphia and I saw a school in the inner city of Philadelphia, it looked like it had been built in the last five or 10 years. I think it was K through eighth grade. And I understand that the school was closed down, that 90 percent of the kids in that school were not reading at grade level. And so the school was unsuccessful. The city closed it down.

A guy named Kenny Gamble, African-American songwriter, got - took the school over. Put in place a charter school. And I went and toured the school with him. Saw the students there.

I went to a classroom where they were learning to use computers and became computer literate. I went to a room where they were singing and they were in a glee club. He said all the kids learn to sing and participate in glee club.

I said, wait a second, how do you afford music teachers, art teachers, computer classes? How do you do all this? He said, well, I run this like a business. This isn't impossible. As I recall, almost 90 percent of the students there now are reading at grade level. And it's the same students.

In my view, this is not a matter of saying just where can we send a lot of money. We have proven that sending a lot of money to failed schools to pay the same teachers to do the same things will not make any difference.

The real key is leadership in drawing the best and brightest of the profession, giving them the right incentives, promoting the very best, helping our students have discipline in the classroom, insisting on the participation of parents.

When I was governor of Massachusetts, I fought very hard to insist that parents - I wanted them to have a training class before they sent their kids to school. I wanted parents to have to go to a class to learn about education, to learn about the culture of education, to support their child. I got some resistance from folks who said, well, the poor don't have time to go to your class.

I said I'll hold them on Sundays, hold them on weekends. I want people to understand the importance of parental involvement.

Geoffrey Canada, here in New York City, has proven that an area that is economically depressed, the schools can be among the best in the nation. Look, this is a matter of the leadership of the schools, the quality of the teachers and the incentives that exist on the part of both parents and teachers for excellence in education.

And I - there's no question in my mind. You take the very worst school districts in America with the most troubled student bodies and you put in some of the best administrators and faculty members and those schools will turn around.

And a guy like Kenny Guinn has proven it. He's got five charter schools. They're succeeding. And if the regular public school can't succeed, put a charter school in there and let them take a try at it.

WILLIAMS: You have said some things about Secretary Duncan that are so complimentary, you've had to apologize in front of some Republican groups. The question is, under a Romney administration, would you ask Secretary Duncan to stay on?

ROMNEY: Oh, I haven't chosen Cabinet secretaries, but I'll tell you, what I liked about and like about Secretary Duncan –

WILLIAMS: Would you consider it?

ROMNEY: I'm not putting anybody on my Cabinet right now, Brian.

(LAUGHTER)

ROMNEY: It's a little presumptuous of me, but just a little. But what I like about him is he said, look, I want to have this Race to the Top program which will give grants to states to encourage innovation and specifically that say we're going to compensate teachers, based upon their performance, which I think is the right thing. We're going to insist on more school choice. I think that's the right thing.


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