AEI experts urge conservative candidates to tout education reforms

Frederick Hess and Max Eden of the American Enterprise Institute explain for National Review Online readers why they believe conservatives running in this year’s elections should have done more to emphasize education reform.

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?)

Conservative candidates in North Carolina wouldn’t have to look too far to find successful reforms to tout.

Mitch Kokai / Senior Political Analyst

Mitch Kokai is senior political analyst for the John Locke Foundation. He joined JLF in December 2005 as director of communications. That followed more than four years as chie...

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