Home » News & Analysis » Opinions » Education Reform Could Have Been A Winning Issue

Education Reform Could Have Been A Winning Issue

by Jeanne Allen
November 10, 2012

The question of the week seems to be, how can the GOP appeal to a wider variety of Americans? Here’s an idea: They can boast more about their leadership on education reform.

Education reform is and has always been a bipartisan issue. But while the movement numbers a handful of Democrats among its truly committed, it was built on the intellectual energy of conservatives, and has been propelled by the energy, for the most part, of Republican elected officials. Success in making fundamental changes to educate poor and minority children and strengthening the quality of education for all kids has been, and continues to be, primarily a Republican achievement.

It is positive that many people in the myriad and growing number of education reform groups and foundations have differing political views. But it was, and continues to be, Republicans who shattered the common myths that have stymied reform. For decades, these myths – about class sizes mattering, about teacher tenure being critical for success, about money being the answer, to name a few – had been propped up by traditional civil rights and child-centered organizations.

Republicans challenged the education establishment to account for decades of failure and started talking about providing alternatives, and about closing failing public schools. The initial impetus – the first ideas and first law for charter schools – were from liberal academics and a liberal Minnesota. But it was conservatives who took up the banner and provided the leadership that led to the best charter school laws in the most populous states. It was Republican governors who found common ground with African-American democrats to bring about publicly funded scholarships for kids – vouchers – in Milwaukee and Cleveland, a trend followed in fourteen states.

Some Democratic state legislators bolstered the work of their Republican Governors. But one wouldn’t have happened without the other.

So where was this issue during the presidential campaign? Republicans didn’t even visit the cities that owe their education salvation to this leadership. While strong reformers who are Republicans continue to run and win elections in states, Republicans at the national level seem not to understand that in supporting educational choice they are supporting a civil right, and that they are the leaders in this support. Republican embrace of individual freedom and liberties over government at the local, state and federal level is an anchor for education reform. And it is repulsive to those who manage and protect the status quo.

Tuesday’s results are not the only wake-up call. Here’s another one: Democrats are working hard to own this issue. Do they deserve the credit? Will they advance the movement? No, but President Obama and his party have vowed to make their party the party of education reform. A recent missive from the Democrats for Education Reform declared Obama “EdReformer in Chief.” He has done little to merit such a title.

We’ve praised Obama’s candor and vocalization of the problems facing American education. We’ve commended the power his Education secretary has wielded to talk about issues that most reformers embrace. But his Administration is conspicuously quiet on the issue of real school choice. And while they talk about ensuring real performance pay for teachers, underneath the talk, the teachers unions are still in charge.

Think about the Democratic Party and this bedrock constituency. Unions once helped those most in need, but today they are keeping those poorest children, those who cannot afford to change zip codes or pay tuition to escape, in failing schools.

President Obama and his majority at the national level continue to oppose attempts to give those students choices. Absent leadership, the nation sits quietly as we shutter hundreds of exceptional Catholic schools that have educated Black and Latino communities, and that educated the Greatest Generation prior to them.

And what were we treated to this election cycle? While Romney’s platform supported parents and students over union prerogatives, neither candidate ran on the issue of ensuring children are educated by whatever means necessary. It almost seems it’s not politically correct to acknowledge that Republicans do something about education reform, while Democrats are forced to negotiate with their supporters, always to reduced effect.

So now what? Republicans should be loudly boasting of their continuing leadership. They can rip a page from the playbook of Jeb Bush. He challenged the education establishment, pushed and later enacted school choice programs and tough evaluations for schools and teachers in Florida, and won handily – twice! In the last election cycle, solid, reform-minded Governors were elected in 18 of 37 states. This election brought another two. These Governors appealed to minority voters who, exit polls tell us, helped President Obama. They could help future Republican candidates.

And think of the women voters who helped sweep President Obama back into the White House. Rather than hearing about vital education issues, women were told someone was tampering with their rights.

This was a colossal missed opportunity: Our polls show it is women between the ages of 25 and 45, not yet moms but intending to be, who consider educational choice almost as critical as any other issue. The Romney education agenda was more in line with the views of women, Hispanics and even African-Americans. But we only began to hear about in the final days of the campaign. By then it was too late to go to Cleveland to discuss the importance Republicans place on empowering parents to make better education choices. Too late to articulate that Republican leadership yielded, and continues to yield, the strongest charter laws. Too late to make the point that performance pay and accountability are issues Republicans took up, in the face of strenuous objection from the unions (who campaign for their opponents).

This is what they should have done. This is what they still could do. Next time.