GOP Gubernatorial Candidates Need to School Themselves on Education Policy

It’s early yet, but so far this year’s field of prospective Republican governors hasn’t offered enough leadership on the issue.

Under President Trump, the action in education has shifted back to the states. This is as it should be, given that spending on K–12 and higher-education accounts for about a third of most state budgets. Indeed, education has been a defining issue for such prominent current and recent GOP governors as Brian Sandoval, Rick Scott, Susanna Martinez, Scott Walker, and Mitch Daniels. So in a year featuring 36 gubernatorial contests, the question inevitably arises: What do would-be Republican governors have to say about school choice, career and technical education (CTE), college costs, early-childhood education, and free speech on campus?

We searched the National Governors Association’s website and Ballotpedia to identify declared gubernatorial candidates and then visited the websites for each. As of March 1, there were 129 Republican candidates, of whom 75 had websites that addressed their views on education.

There are several takeaways worth noting.

The only issue to muster support from even half of GOP candidates is school choice. Forty of the 75 candidates who addressed education on their websites mentioned choice, with 38 of those supportive and two — Steve Barlock of Colorado and Krystal Gabel of Nebraska — explicitly opposed on the grounds that they believe it hurts public education. When it comes to specific choice-based proposals, just 20 candidates mention charter schools, just 14 school vouchers, and just six education savings accounts.

On the whole, much of what the candidates say about choice tends to be rather vague.

On the whole, much of what the candidates say about choice tends to be rather vague. The site for Adam Putnam, Florida’s commissioner of agriculture and a leader in recent state polls of the governor’s race, is typical in this regard. “Adam believes that parents know what is best for their children, not Washington or Tallahassee,” it reads, “and he supports policies that allow parents to choose the education that best fits their child’s needs.”

It is, however, possible to be more forthright and concrete about specific choice programs without publishing extensive policy briefs, even at this early stage. For instance, Adam Laxalt, Nevada’s attorney general and the frontrunner for the Republican gubernatorial nomination, advocates “empowering parents by supporting school choice — including better access to Charter Schools and Career and Technical Education, Opportunity Scholarships and Education Savings Accounts.”

The only policy other than school choice to draw much attention from GOP candidates is career and technical education (CTE). CTE encompasses vocational education, apprenticeships, and other efforts to cultivate workplace skills. Thirty-two GOP candidates use the phrase on their website, though 14 of those drop it in without any real elaboration. Those candidates that have more to say, however, propose a diverse array of policies that could lead to interesting experiments across the country. Eight candidates call for working with local businesses to ensure that training programs are teaching relevant skills, seven call for providing vocational education within high schools so that students can graduate with a work credential, and four call for expanding apprenticeships. Other noteworthy proposals flagged by at least a couple of candidates include creating short certificates to ensure that people can easily update their skills throughout their lives and using community colleges to expand technical training.

While most candidates do little more than give a nod to CTE, the site for Phil Scott, the Republican incumbent seeking reelection in Vermont, illustrates what a more robust message can look like:

Hands-on apprenticeships, trades training and internships should be core to the educational experience of every child. We should invest in technical and trade education to trigger interest in the STEM fields….I will continue to support dual enrollment opportunities that allow high school students to participate in college courses, career readiness courses and the type of hands-on technical education that got me interested in the construction trades.

Also notable, however, is what candidates are ignoring. Just twelve of the 75 who address education have anything to say on college affordability, while just eight of them address early-childhood education. These are kitchen-table issues voters need to hear about, issues that give Republicans a huge opportunity to offer appealing plans that can tackle real concerns without resorting to expensive, balky new programs and bureaucracies. Yet most Republican candidates are allowing Democrats to dominate the debate around them with proposals for “free college” and New York City-style plans for expanding school-district fiefdoms to provide pre-kindergarten.

Especially striking — and troubling — is the lack of attention to free speech on campus. Despite the endless stream of anecdotal and systematic evidence that raises concerns about the state of free inquiry in higher education, just one of the 75 candidate websites bothers to address the issue as it applies to state-supported colleges and universities. And that lone individual, Scott Hawkins of Alaska, promises only that he will “work with the leadership of University of Alaska to promote learning and open debate, not indoctrination.” Here is an issue that unites conservatives, consistently resonates with moderates, and speaks to a significant problem at state-supported institutions, yet GOP candidates are almost uniformly silent about it.

Education should be a state and community affair. But it won’t be unless state officials step up to lead the way. Thus far, this year’s field of GOP gubernatorial candidates hasn’t shown a willingness to provide that leadership. Even when they address education, barely one-in-four signal support for charter schools and just one-in-five signal support for school vouchers. On college costs and early-childhood education, they are largely absent. And when it comes to free speech on campus, they’re simply missing in action.

It’s early yet, and candidates have lots of time to get serious about addressing these critical issues. But they’d better get to work, because the early signs are not auspicious.

 Frederick M. Hess is director of education-policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute. Sofia Gallo is a research assistant at AEI.