The Republicans enjoyed a huge night on Tuesday. And it goes without saying that the results had little (or nothing) to do with education. Gallup’s final poll of what issues voters deemed most important found that education was top-of-mind for just 5 percent of voters.
Yet, while education wasn’t an important part of what happened Tuesday night, an ascendant Republican party would do well to think about what Tuesday night means for education. Yesterday’s wave was primarily an anti-Obama vote, but Republicans now need to show what they’re actually for. And there’s little that has more practical resonance or is more consistent with an opportunity agenda than efforts to help families access and afford great schools and colleges.
After all, as Henry Olsen has noted time and again on NRO, Republicans can run strong on the issues but get killed on the perception that they don’t care about kitchen-table concerns. In 2012, Mitt Romney beat President Obama comfortably when voters were asked which candidate “shares my values,” “is a strong leader,” and “has a vision for the future” but lost by 60 points when they were asked which “cares about people like me.” For conservatives, education has powerful practical and symbolic resonance on that count, a point that’s been driven home over the years by governors like Jeb Bush and Mitch Daniels.
So what are the takeaways from Tuesday night?
First and foremost, conservatives don’t have to play defense, and they ought not be afraid of school reform. Three GOP governors were hammered for having supposedly cut education spending. Now, you need to be a forensic accountant to determine the truth of such claims (e.g., Do increased contributions to teacher pensions count? How does one score 2011 stimulus dollars? Is the measure total spending or per-pupil spending?). In any event, two of the embattled candidates — Rick Scott in Florida and Sam Brownback in Kansas — went on to triumph despite fierce union attacks. Tom Corbett lost in Pennsylvania, but he had plenty of other troubles and was left for dead months ago.
In fact, while 20 of 35 Republican gubernatorial candidates touted increased K–12 spending as part of their platform, it’s not clear that voters are convinced that more spending is the ticket to better schools. In Harry Reid’s Nevada, a ballot measure to boost school spending by raising corporate taxes went down to a crushing defeat. A year ago, a billion-dollar spending plan for schools crashed and burned in similarly purple Colorado. And deep-blue Washington state rejected an initiative to decrease class size by hiring more teachers.
Meanwhile, the results should encourage conservatives ready to fight for principled reform. Scott Walker won for the third time in four years in purple Wisconsin in the face of relentless union opposition for daring to curtail collective bargaining, tackle public pensions, and promote school choice. Rick Snyder in Michigan won with a similar résumé, and John Kasich roared to victory in Ohio after having fought similar fights. These are all industrial Midwest swing states where conservatives can find themselves inclined to step gently. Oh, and Thom Tillis, speaker of the North Carolina house, was targeted by a flood of negative ads for his role in the state’s hugely controversial move to eliminate teacher tenure and stop paying teachers for advanced degrees. For all that, Tillis still managed to oust favorite Kay Hagan.
None of this should be all that surprising. While Republicans often seem inclined to talk softly when it comes to school reform, Education Next polling has found that 60 percent of Americans endorse tax credits for individuals who donate money to organizations that grant scholarships for students to attend private schools, 54 percent endorse expanding charter schools, and 51 percent favor vouchers for students in low-performing schools. Sixty percent of the public favors tying teacher tenure to student performance. These issues are ripe for Republicans to address, partly because they can do so with a much freer hand than can Democratic reformers — for whom such measures risk alienating substantial parts of their base.
At the federal level, opportunity abounds for Republicans. For a charmed period, during his first term, Obama reaped hosannas for being an education reformer. But it turned out that Obama’s playbook amounted to aggressive federal micromanagement of teacher evaluations and cheerleading for the Common Core. Meanwhile, overdue legislation on K–12 and higher education languished as Obama’s Department of Education sought to bypass Congress rather than negotiate with it.
The administration has set a pretty low bar, one that Republicans should have every opportunity to clear. Already, the House passed, last year, legislation that would reauthorize the No Child Left Behind Act in a scaled-back, more sensible form. Senator Lamar Alexander, the incoming chair of the Senate education committee, has made clear his intention to push back on the Obama administration’s efforts to turn the Department of Education into a “national school board.” And conservative thinkers, including Andrew Kelly of the American Enterprise Institute, have been offering plenty of smart ideas as to what the feds can do to help families and students when it comes to the costs of college.
Republicans would do best to remember that while Tuesday’s big win was a rebuke of Obama, they can use it as an opportunity to build the case for conservative ideas in 2016. Opportunity-oriented conservatives know that improving education ought to be a big part of that work.
— Frederick M. Hess is director of education-policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute. Michael Q. McShane is a research fellow at AEI.