How Republicans Turned “School Choice” Into a Losing Issue

How Republicans Turned “School Choice” Into a Losing Issue

How Republicans Turned “School Choice” Into a Losing Issue

After 18 months of Covid disruption, support for vouchers and even charter schools has plummeted—even in the home of “Live Free or Die.”


Concord, N.H.—Former secretary of state Mike Pompeo was back in New Hampshire, his day filled with the sorts of activities befitting a wannabe president in the home of the first-in-the-nation primary. He’d hobnobbed with state GOP members and toured a local defense contractor in the state’s booming southern suburbs. Here at the state capital, Pompeo is tag-teaming with another former Trump secretary, Betsy DeVos, at an event to promote a signature issue for the GOP: school choice.

The packed house at a downtown theater awaited Pompeo’s arrival with Alice Cooper’s anthem “School’s Out”—School’s out forever, School’s been blown to pieces—playing in the background. He took the stage to rapturous applause. “The founders understood the importance of strong families,” the campaign-coiffed Pompeo told 250 mostly maskless attendees. Parents should be able to send their kids to a school that “teaches their children what they want them to learn.” And children should be taught “real American history,” he said, “not the junk that’s brought into the classroom now.” The crowd went wild.

That Trump’s former foreign affairs chief would choose school choice as a signature issue for his run at the White House isn’t all that surprising. “Parents’ rights” has emerged as a centerpiece of the Trump-era GOP—an aggrieved rallying cry against mandating vaccines, masks in schools, or the teaching of content that parents find objectionable, including material on race, slavery and other so-called divisive concepts.

Florida Governor DeSantis, another likely 2024 candidate, has emerged as the most ardent crusader on behalf of this constituency. But this is the lane that Pompeo hopes to claim too. His new super PAC, Champion American Values, paints a picture of an American family under siege from the rising tide of “socialist ideology.” The CAVPAC website is replete with video images of Pompeo in military surroundings, but the army he now wants to mobilize is comprised of families. “Parents, not government, make choices for children and themselves,” the site proclaims.

First in the nation

New Hampshire’s primary primacy isn’t the only draw for conservative presidential aspirants these days. The GOP’s vision for public education may be closer to becoming a reality here than in any other state. This summer, bolstered by trifecta control of state government and a burgeoning libertarian movement, Granite State Republicans enacted a sweeping “education freedom” program. Parents who withdraw their children from the public schools (or who never sent them to public schools) are now eligible for $4,600 to spend on private religious schooling, homeschooling, or other education expenses. Another new program devotes millions in pandemic relief money to create for-profit micro schools with the aid of an Arizona company currently under investigation for fraud in that state. Just as anyone with a car can drive for Uber, anyone with a home can transform it into a “school” for five to 10 students—no training or degree required.

The goal of these innovations is an age-old one: breaking up what Republicans (and some Democrats) refer to derisively as the public school monopoly. But the ultimate targets here are the taxes that pay for public schools. The sponsor of the Concord school choice forum where Pompeo appeared was the anti-tax Club for Growth. The Koch-funded Americans for Prosperity (which recently blanketed the state with mailers to parents, encouraging them to claim their education freedom dollar) is also committed to the libertarian principle that education is something consumers should pay for themselves.

Should New Hampshire’s new voucher program prove as successful as these groups hope, draining money from local school districts, communities will have no choice but to hike property taxes—a deeply unpopular proposition in a state where the property tax burden is both steep and uneven. The cynical gambit here is that voters in at least some communities will forsake their own schools rather than pay higher taxes.

This year saw a bumper crop of new and expanded school choice programs enacted across the country. The favored explanation for why states like New Hampshire enacted new voucher programs and other school choice offerings is that Covid made them do it. In this telling, parent fury—over union-backed school closures, and over the leftist-indoctrinating teachers that populated their children’s Zoom rooms—drove legislators to act. But an extensive national poll, released on the very day of Pompeo’s visit, paints a much different picture. After 18 months of disruption, parents are increasingly opposed to change of any kind; support for vouchers and even charter schools has plummeted over the past two years.

In New Hampshire, the concept of “education freedom” has become so unpopular that when legislators held public hearings, nearly 8,000 people turned out—with six out of seven of them in opposition. Without enough support in the House to pass it, proponents were forced to tuck it into the state budget, along with a ban on teaching “divisive concepts”—another measure so unpopular that even the GOP’s traditional allies in the business community opposed it.

“They basically hid school vouchers in the budget bill instead of going through the whole democratic process,” says Zandra Rice Hawkins, executive director of Granite State Progress, a progressive advocacy group. “That may be normal in other states but not in New Hampshire.”

By the numbers

The Pompeo town hall marked the kick off of the Club for Growth’s nationwide Campaign for Parental School Choice. The campaign “comes amid,” in PR speak, rising parent concern about left-wing indoctrination in the schools. The real spike, though, is in the GOP’s conviction that mining parent grievance is the way to electoral success, including with the suburban women who fled the party during the Trump years.

Pollster Chris Wilson, on hand for the event, quickly punctured this dream. The idea of school choice is popular, he told the crowd, but only if you call it something other than school choice, which holds an overwhelmingly negative association. (This news had evidently not made it to event organizers, who’d invested handsomely in piles of free “school choice” T-shirts, ball caps, placards, and buttons, heaped in the theater lobby and displayed prominently behind the marquee guests.) The recommended rebrand is “school freedom.” But even this marks something of a setback for a movement eager to wean Americans off their fierce attachment to brick-and-mortar schools.

As for critical race theory, the news was even worse. The specter of CRT motivates no one but GOP primary voters, Wilson said. For anyone else it’s a turnoff. Even the right’s go-to villains had come up empty. Targeting teachers and teachers unions causes support for the cause to dip, Wilson said, flashing a PowerPoint slide stamped with the stern warning, “Do not say this.”

Losing message

The first stop on Pompeo’s New Hampshire itinerary was an event for Linda Camarota, a Republican candidate for state representative, running in a special election in the GOP stronghold of Bedford. Pompeo praised Camarota, one of the first candidates his PAC endorsed, as a warrior for school choice and parental rights. Camarota, a self-proclaimed constitutional conservative, ran hard against taxes and CRT in schools.

That turned out to be a losing message. Democrat Catherine Rombeau, a former school board member who made public education and how to pay for it the central issue of her campaign, eked out a surprising victory, narrowing an already razor-thin GOP state House majority. Rombeau, like many Bedford residents, moved to this booming suburban community for its strong education system. The idea of defunding the local schools in the name of “education freedom” holds little appeal to voters here, something Rombeau appears to have understood.

Republicans are reportedly seething over the loss, even as they try to process what went so wrong. The answer just might be hiding in plain sight—in the Club for Growth’s polling.

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