Commentary

GOP Education Platform: Strong on fundamentals, dizzying on details

The Republican National Convention is in full swing this week in Cleveland, and while even GOP delegates are still in the dark about what Donald Trump actually thinks about education, the party’s platform is pretty specific. At its strongest, the document comes down firmly in support of school choice and funding portability. At its weakest, the platform abandons the idea of a limited government role in education in favor of different top-down approaches than the status quo being managed from a smaller levels of government. Going off of Donald Trump alone, it’s hard to hear a clear voice for education reform within the GOP. The Republican party’s clearest pro-school choice messenger during the primary was Ted Cruz, and he’s in hot water right now. Recently, it’s been Donald Trump’s son. For a primary so dominated by lack of specifics, the document provides a lot to dig into.

Protecting choice:

The GOP platform comes out strong for improving the school system through competition. It argues that the “one-size-fits-all approach to education” should be replaced with more parental choice. Among these options, the document supports “home-schooling, career and technical education, private or parochial schools, magnet schools, charter schools, online learning, and early-college high schools.” It recalls that since 1965, the Department of Education has spent “$2 trillion on elementary and secondary education with little substantial improvement in achievement or high school graduation rates.” Instead of throwing money at the problems of public education, the platform instead calls for “choice-based, parent-driven accountability at every stage of schooling.” The document name-checked Education Savings Accounts, vouchers, and tax credit scholarships as effective programs to make school choice a financial reality for more families. It also backed Title I and IDEA funding portability, which would allow the federal funds sent to schools with large percentages of poor or special needs students to be able to follow the actual students in need regardless of how many students like them attended their school. The platform also backed programs like Washington DC’s Opportunity Scholarship Program, which has provided vouchers for thousands of children for over a decade. In support of introducing more market incentives into education, the platform also calls for replacing teacher tenure with a “merit-based system” like in the private sector. So far, so good, GOP.

One platform quote captured the problem of top-down educational mandates well. “American education has, for the last several decades, been the focus of constant controversy, as centralizing forces from outside the family and community have sought to remake education in order to remake America.” The observation recalls the work of our friends at Cato in creating the Public Schooling Battle Map. The graphic dots a map of the country with various ongoing school disputes. When students are forced to attend a school based on their zip code and can’t afford a private alternative, disagreements on things like curriculum, sex education, or free expression become a much bigger deal than they might otherwise be. It’s funny then, given the Republicans’ apparent understanding of choice’s importance, that their platform is also full of things they would encourage schools to uniformly adopt.

Choosing for others:

Despite its strong support for choice, the GOP education platform also takes several unnecessary sides in nationwide culture wars. The document expresses support for the “English First approach,” implying that English Language Learning curricula are “divisive programs that limit students’ ability to advance in American society.” The platform calls for sexual education to promote abstinence until marriage as the “responsible and respected standard of behavior,” over comprehensive sexual education strategies it refers to as “family planning programs.” Additionally, the platform opposes schools providing contraception or referral and counseling for abortion. It celebrates states like North Carolina that have fought against the Obama Administration’s guidance over transgender people and locker and restroom access. The platform calls Administration’s actions “illegal, dangerous,” and ignoring privacy concerns.

When it comes to English language-learning, sexual education, and transgender students, nobody denies that any of these issues aren’t controversial, able to inspire emotions on both sides, and very complex. If the GOP was truly taking its concerns about centralized top-down social engineering to heart, they might approach these questions with more humility. Maybe instead of trying to get all schools to come down on the side of the dispute they agree with, they’d do better to focus on giving parents enough choice to be able to avoid tangling their kids in these fights in the first place?

The platform makes similar errors talking about curriculum. It calls for a focus on “phonics,” “career and technical education,” and “classroom discipline.” All of these things sound generally positive, but living in a world of scarce resources, do want every school to be all of these things for every child? STEM literacy is important in the 21st century economy, but why shouldn’t a student passionate for the arts be able to choose to attend a school that specializes in those interests? Every kid learns differently—if phonics doesn’t help one student learn to read as quickly as his or her peers, parents should be able to choose a school that better serves their child’s literacy needs. Some parents seek out schools like Success Academy’s charters in New York expressly for their reputation for stern discipline. Other parents choose schools like Washington DC’s Eagle Academy, which deliberately doesn’t suspend students to promote a nurturing environment. The point shouldn’t be trying to decide which kind of culture and curriculum is best, but how we can give parents the tools to find the best fit for their child.

On school organization, it’s a similar story. The platform calls for “strong leadership by principals, superintendents, and locally elected school boards.” There’s no doubt that empowered principals are crucial to and benefit from school choice and finance reform efforts like student-based budgeting. That said, we shouldn’t rush to praise “local control” for its own sake. District leaders, city mayors, and school boards opposed to giving principals greater budgetary autonomy, working with local charter schools, or helping a new voucher program succeed can break school choice programs. New Orleans, widely seen as the nation’s greatest success story in school choice, was so effective partly because Louisiana took away the local control that had been failing students for years. The state-run Louisiana Recovery School District introduced choice and competition through setting up open enrollment and converting New Orleans into a nearly all-charter district. Louisiana is only now returning control to the city’s school board 12 years later, and not without controversy.

Overall, the 2016 Republican educational platform is solid on the fundamentals but should leave a bad taste in education reformers’ mouths. It rightly identifies how technocratic solutions can never be the long-term drivers of educational success. It rightly sees how cultural issues in public schools can divide communities when parents don’t have easy alternatives to choose from. The platform is rightly unapologetic in defending the value of choice and competition among schools for its own sake. But by trying to dictate correct positions that local, rather than federal authorities should adopt in a variety of educational culture wars, the GOP falls into the same one-size-fits-all trap they claim to criticize, just one enforced by a less powerful government.

Tyler Koteskey was an education policy analyst at Reason Foundation, a non-profit think tank advancing free minds and free markets.