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Education at the RNC? Not so much. Why the GOP doesn’t seem all that interested

Guest contributor | July 22, 2016

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#EDlection2016By Max Marchitello 

Although it was light on ideas, the four days of the Republican National Convention were nevertheless exciting at times. A few states staged a walkout in an attempt to secure a roll call vote. From Florida to Washington, we debated what does or does not count as plagiarism. We pretended to be a grand jury during a mock indictment of Hillary Clinton. And finally, we heard over and over from the Trump family.

Much to the chagrin of wonks like me, and really anyone who wants to get a sense of what a Trump White House might look like, 10-point plans and policy ideas were afterthoughts. And given the central role it plays in just about every area of American life, even more disappointing was the fact that education policy was such a fringe issue. Schools barely received any mention at all.

But benching education isn’t all that surprising these days. Looking back at the last few presidential races, education took a backseat to other issues such as the economy, national security, or entitlement reform. This isn’t to suggest that America’s education problems are few or less important. Quite the contrary. But because in the last few races candidates just haven’t been prioritizing them. Can anyone remember Mitt Romney’s or John McCain’s thoughts on how to improve our schools?

This conspicuous absence is a function of the GOP’s inability to develop new policy ideas that will increase school quality, close achievement gaps, and expand access to college and good jobs. Of course that’s not to say Republicans don’t have any ideas to improve education. Rather, that those ideas have a hard time taking root as they run afoul of an increasingly popular and narrow vision of conservatives.

• Read the complete archive of The 74-Bellwether Education Partners live blog of the 2016 Republican National Convention. (See our DNC coverage here.) We will be covering national and state-level education issues leading up to Election Day at our #EDlection2016 page — sign up for The 74 newsletter to get all our campaign updates. 

So what do you do when you’re limited by your own party’s ideology? You get back to your sweet spot; to the things with which you are comfortable. For the Republican Party, that’s traditionally states’ rights, choice, and free market principles. And this year they’ve added nativism and uncritical American exceptionalism.

Stop me if you’ve heard this before.

These are the very same ideas they put forth to improve the job market, the healthcare system, or international trade. The list goes on.

It’s not that school choice is a bad idea, or that states don’t have a central role to play in improving American education. They do. But the discussion of these policy ideas have become too rigid and too simplistic. They’ve swung too far backward. In the face of today’s challenges facing our schools, simply pushing competition is stale and unproductive.

Students have gotten lost in the GOP’s rush to get back to their core values of free markets and competition.

Take Donald Trump Jr.’s speech—perhaps the finest of the convention and the one with the most extensive discussion of education (about three paragraphs). He rightly diagnoses the problems: the children of billionaires have opportunities that other children don’t. But, in prescribing remedies, he just reaches back into the same depleted bag of old and tired tricks:

“Our schools used to be an elevator to the middle class, now they’re stalled on the ground floor. They’re like Soviet-era department stores that are run for the benefit of the clerks and not the customer, for the teachers and the administrators and not the students. You know why other countries do better on K through 12? They let parents choose where to send their own children to school. That’s called competition. It’s called the free market.”

It’s no wonder Trump Jr.’s speech alludes to the U.S.S.R. The ideas he puts forth are just as old and just as outdated. 

For a number of reasons, free market principles cannot be responsibly applied wholesale to our public schools. Even though Donald Trump promised in his lengthy acceptance speech to “rescue kids from failing schools by helping their parents send them to a safe school of their choice,” a parent’s ability to make the “best” choice is influenced by so many different factors.

Unfortunately, those factors are so often based on poverty, race, gender, immigration status, and disability. In other words, some people – those with economic and social advantage – are the ones who can choose the good schools. The rest are left to pick over the remains. Obviously, that is not a solution to education inequity. Instead, it reproduces it.

What’s more, the idea of schools competing seems antithetical to the larger goal: providing all students with a high-quality education. In competition there are of course, winners and losers. So, to advocate for school competition is to agree – at least tacitly – that it is natural and good that some students receive a great education, while others receive a poor one.

It’s hard to square Trump’s promises and rhetoric with the policies the Republican Party is putting forth. In last night’s acceptance speech, Trump declared he would make every decision only after considering whether it was in the best interests of the children in Baltimore and Ferguson. It sounds nice. But, when the rubber meets the road, his policies don’t support the interests of the children he claims to want to serve. For example, expanding school choice in Baltimore won’t make the schools families can choose from any better. Choosing between only bad options is no choice at all.

We need the GOP to have better ideas if we are going to improve our schools.

But, I don’t want only to pile on Republicans. Democrats will have their turn – the Democratic National Convention is next week. And, at this point, they seem also to have retreated to their ideological corner. As others have documented, the party turned its back on a number of previous priorities that would have led to improved education for students. Now, Democrats are opposed to using student performance to evaluate teachers. So if student success isn’t related to teachers, then what is? They are also opposed to closing schools due to ongoing poor student performance. Weird. Is there a better reason to close a school than the fact that its students aren’t learning?

Like the GOP, Democrats are rolling back the clock and rolling out ideas with too little tread left on the tires.

At first glance it seems like there cannot be much agreement between these two disparate positions — between a blind faith and reliance on the market, on the one hand, and on the other an equally blind faith that educators should be self-regulating and can improve schools their own. But with a closer look, there is a fertile middle ground where Republicans and Democrats can worry less about free markets or union contracts, and instead focus on students. Prioritizing students — making sure they all have the opportunities Trump’s children had — can be a unifying force. Then we can, together, make real the idea we all espouse to believe in: that a child’s education should not be a function of zip code. Hopefully we have the courage.

Max Marchitello is a senior policy analyst with Bellwether Education Partners.

This article was published in partnership with

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