The GOP and School Reform

by Frederick M. Hess & Max C. Eden

GOP candidates are more jazzed for spending than reform.

With the midterms just days away, Republicans are hoping to claim the U.S. Senate and maintain or expand their healthy lead in governorships. Of course, as has been said again and again since 2012, Republicans need to deserve victory. While education doesn’t provide election-season fodder the way the Islamic State, Ebola, and Obamacare do, it does offer a test of whether GOP candidates are willing and able to address kitchen-table issues. This is a test that the candidates have generally failed. An analysis of what GOP candidates for governor and U.S. senator have to say on their campaign websites shows they’ve little inclination to say anything at all about education, even on questions that play well with the public.

Education offers Republican leaders a chance to compete on Democratic turf and show their commitment to equal opportunity. It’s no surprise that two of the GOP’s most successful governors of the past generation, Mitch Daniels in Indiana and Jeb Bush in Florida, both made education a centerpiece of their efforts. Education was similarly central to George W. Bush’s presidential win in 2000. Today, though, Republican candidates are ducking on education. In fact, the only proposal that most Republicans seem to embrace is the notion that the government should spend more money on schools and colleges. Twenty of the 35 Republican gubernatorial candidates tout the increases in school spending they’ve overseen while in office or their promises to boost spending if elected. (Democrats running for governor are actually less likely to brag about their proclivity to spend more, with just 16 doing so.)

Meanwhile, on any subject other than spending, Republicans tend toward silence. Just three of the 35 Republican gubernatorial candidates mention teacher tenure, and just one would-be senator mentions it. Barely a third of prospective GOP governors bother to mention charter schools or school choice, and just four declare that money should follow students to the schools of their parents’ choice. Yet Education Next reported this summer that Americans oppose tenure by a two-to-one margin, and Gallup reports that 70 percent of Americans support charter schools.

For all the grassroots fervor about the Common Core, just ten of 35 GOP gubernatorial candidates mention the issue (nine of the ten oppose it). While 17 would-be senators cite their opposition to the Common Core, the U.S. Senate has little ability to actually do anything on the question — making this a mostly symbolic stance. The fate of the Common Core rests with the states, where more than two-thirds of Republican candidates are silent about where they stand.

When it comes to higher education, an area ripe with opportunity for Republicans to demonstrate their ability to address pocketbook concerns, GOP candidates are ceding the field. Gallup reports that Americans age 18 to 49 cite the cost of college and college loans as their top financial problem. Yet, in the race for the Senate, Democratic candidates are more than twice as likely as Republicans to mention the cost of college or the importance of STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) education, and more than three times as likely to mention the burden of student loans. Twice as many Democrats as Republicans mention community colleges.

Rather than mention support for charter schools or acknowledge concerns about college costs, the GOP’s would-be governors are busy insisting that they’ll outspend their Democratic counterparts. Setting aside questions of principle, this is a losing ploy. When was the last time a Republican successfully convinced voters she really wanted to outspend her Democratic opponent? (And is that even an argument that Republicans really want to win?)

Even when Republicans do boost spending, Democrats have been successful in raising doubts. For instance, Governor Rick Scott of Florida boasts that he has increased school spending by $2.3 billion in his first term, and Governor Rick Snyder of Michigan that he has raised spending by $660 per pupil, but their Democratic opponents decry both for their alleged “cuts.” With Politico reporting that the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers are on track to spend more than $80 million in campaign ads hitting Republicans on education spending, it’s no surprise that Republicans have trouble convincing the public that they’re eager to outspend the Democrats.

Rather than mount an unprincipled fight they’re likely to lose, Republicans would do well to talk about the issues that resonate with the American people and to offer principled solutions. Doing so could help make the case that Republicans are ready to tackle practical concerns like school quality and college costs. This would help them win over independent voters, govern effectively in the next two years, and strengthen their case for 2016.

— Frederick M. Hess is director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute. Max Eden is a research associate at AEI.