The GOP's 2014 economic message is mobility. It's an extension of the by-your-bootstraps ideology that's been baked into the party's self-image for decades. When you ask Republicans how Americans can make their way up the economic ladder, they reply, "Better education," knowing that it's a winning message for voters of all stripes in a campaign year, especially one as economically fraught as this.
Look no further than the party's own recommendations for reviving its brand, and you'll see Republicans embracing mobility and education as twin tenets of their policy approach. "The Republican Party must be the champion of those who seek to climb the economic ladder of life," GOP strategists said when delivering recommendations for broadening the party's appeal. "Perhaps no policy demonstrates the depth of our party's commitment to all Americans as strongly as school choice—our promise of 'equal opportunity in education' to all children regardless of color, class, or origin."
They are correct in recognizing mobility and opportunity as dependent on education. The promises made in 2013, after the party's embarrassing presidential defeat, could have been the perfect prelude to a series of robust ideas about changing education. But that hasn't happened. While school choice is talked about among a small number of GOP lawmakers, the truth is, Republicans aren't actually doing much of anything to improve the schooling and training that Americans need to climb, compete, and excel economically.
"It's tricky. Republicans usually feel like they need to say something about K-12 education, because voters care about it. But it's easy to do more harm than good," said Mike Petrilli, executive vice president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a conservative education-reform organization.
It's not that no one is trying. This week, Rep. Luke Messer, R-Ind., convened the inaugural meeting of the Congressional School Choice Caucus. It has 11 members so far. (By contrast, the Republican Study Committee has 171 members and the Congressional Baby Caucus has 31.) "You start by getting started," Messer told a few dozen school-choice advocates and parents on Capitol Hill. "Every cause has its time."
Republicans have succeeded in labeling themselves as pro-school-choice, but thus far only a handful of members are spending time and resources trying to craft serious policy rather than talking points. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor has championed school choice for more than a year, traveling to charter and private schools all over the country to talk about it. Last year, he successfully added an amendment to an elementary and secondary education bill that would require federal dollars for low-income students to be used at the public or charter school of their choice. The bill passed the House but then went nowhere.
A few Republican governors have taken up the education mantle, but they aren't the norm. Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal is building on New Orleans's success with charters by aggressively pursuing school vouchers and an effort to tie teachers' pay to their effectiveness in the classroom. Ohio Gov. John Kasich has sought to expand charter schools and boost the coffers of the state's poorer school districts. The only other GOP headliner who crops up regularly in education circles is former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. And he is tainted by the collective conservative hangover from President Bush's signature No Child Left Behind law, which Jeb supported.
Failing schools are among the biggest roadblocks for families who, as the GOP opportunity agenda encourages, aim to move from lower income to a middle income and beyond. Here, Republicans could embrace academic standards or school-turnaround strategies to fulfill their commitment to educational attainment and economic mobility. Yet the party has not done so, because fixing failing schools requires more federal intervention than most Republicans are comfortable with. The task may require standards that, when not met, result in consequences like closing schools. That's a lot of bureaucracy for a government-weary conservative to embrace.
Consider the heavy standards-based approach of No Child Left Behind, which Republicans have shied away from for fear of government encroachment. Then there's the Common Core State Standards Initiative, which some conservatives vehemently oppose as a Washington and big-business ploy to run local schools. "On principle, most Republicans reject an aggressive federal role in education," said Petrilli, whose organization ardently supports Common Core. "And us pragmatists know from painful experience that the feds tend to screw up everything they touch in education, even if they don't mean to."
But the result, says Messer, has been unsatisfying for voters. "It's never been our intent to articulate that we don't care about your child. The intent has been to articulate that the federal government—how do I put it?—isn't the best architect of those options," he says.
So that leaves school choice—the easiest education proposal for Republicans to embrace because it doesn't require any federal entity to dictate curriculum or practices. But even choice is not without problems for the party. Funding limitations dictate that most school-choice options are designated only for low-income families, and the amount of federal money available for poor kids—about $1,000 to $2,500 per student—isn't nearly enough to cover tuition at a private or parochial school. Plus, politically, it's not a proprietary weapon for the GOP, given how many prominent Democrats, the president included, are also strong supporters.
Alone, school choice is not a game-changer for most Americans looking to climb. Improving education for the next generation of workers requires quality schools everywhere, bridge programs to help kids who fall behind catch up, and new pathways to post-high school job training or college. Otherwise, the economic-mobility message rings hollow.
This article appears in the March 29, 2014 edition of National Journal Magazine as Talking the Talk.
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