What Does the Republican Education Agenda Look Like?

Republicans are campaigning on economic mobility and opportunity, but the policies that deliver it are harder to come by.

National Journal
Fawn Johnson
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Fawn Johnson
April 1, 2014, 1 a.m.

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.

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