The Republican National Committee’s platform on education contains a lot of tea party buzzwords: abstinence, English-first, homeschooling, vouchers, local control. But the document also shows signs that the GOP is willing to embrace some type of benchmarking (that is, regulation) for public schools. The platform talks about “accountability,” “higher expectations for all students,” and options for students in failing schools. It’s a far cry from eliminating the Education Department.
Prominent education-reform advocates are hobnobbing in Tampa. They are the type of people who doggedly defend standards for student achievement and shun a hands-off approach. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Michelle Rhee, the former District of Columbia Public Schools chancellor, led a panel discussion on Tuesday at a screening of Won’t Back Down, a movie about two mothers who take on a failing inner-city public school. The event drew 1,000 delegates and guests.
Rhee’s grassroots-education group, StudentsFirst, will also be screening the film in Charlotte next week at the Democratic National Convention.
“A lot of people said to me beforehand, ‘Well, you’ve got to be careful at these conventions. It tends to be the most radical people,’ ” said Rhee, a Democrat, in an interview. “We talked about bipartisanship a lot on that panel, and we got a really strong reception.”
Republicans love Rhee because she took on the teachers unions in D.C. by insisting that school layoffs eliminate the ineffective teachers, not the ones with the least tenure. Her message to Republicans is the same as it is to Democrats. “I think that what both parties have to do between now and November is not kowtow to the special interests within their own party—Democrats with the teachers unions on their side and Republicans with the tea party on their side,” she said.
There are hints that Republicans are responding to her plea. Idaho’s schools superintendent, Tom Luna, led the platform committee in drafting the education plan. In his state, Luna implemented tough standards, including a new “credit system” for the middle grades. During the committee’s deliberations, he said that Republicans would support “innovative education reform” such as merit pay for teachers, removal of “last in, first out” tenure protections, and “education beyond high school”—all things that a dogged advocate such as Rhee also supports.
But Rhee isn’t yet convinced that GOP support is for real. She applauded Mitt Romney for producing a meaty white paper on education, but she pointed out that he ignored the critical accountability factors that underpinned President George W. Bush’s signature No Child Left Behind law. “They didn’t say, ‘We’re not going to do it.’ They didn’t say, ‘We are going to do it.’ They sort of just left it out,” she said. “So, for me, that’s a little bit of a flag that they aren’t going to be as strong on accountability.”
The GOP’s chief message on education is school choice. Anyone familiar with the fight over D.C.’s controversial voucher program knows that choice is not an issue that can be resolved on the local level. The Republican platform says that the District’s voucher program, which the Obama administration has sought to defund, “should be expanded as a model for the rest of the country.”
This article appears in the August 30, 2012, edition of NJ Convention Daily.