Keller, Texas—On the same night that President Trump invoked the specter of “failing government schools” in his State of the Union address, Texas Republican Giovanni Capriglione was working hard to establish his public school bona fides. Elected to the Texas House as part of the 2012 Tea Party wave, Capriglione reminded voters here in Keller, an affluent suburb of Fort Worth, that he was a product of public schools, his wife is too, and that his children attend them now. Grade by grade, he named his favorite teachers.
While Trump used his pulpit to make clear his administration’s contempt for public schools, Capriglione wooed the voters he hopes will send him back to the state legislature with calls for more generous school funding, less standardized testing, and more rigorous oversight of charter schools.
Why such disparate messaging?
In a word: elections. In 2018 Texas Democrats flipped 12 formerly Republican legislative seats, half in the fast-growing region around Dallas and Fort Worth known as the Metroplex. While the Texas version of the blue wave was fueled in part by enthusiasm for the Senate candidacy of Beto O’Rourke, Democrats also ran hard against what they characterized as the GOP’s antipathy toward public education. Voters ejected several school voucher advocates, while candidates who ran as supporters of public schools were rewarded. And while Trump is beloved among rural Texans, they are not fans of his signature education issue, “education freedom,” aka sending taxpayer funds to private and religious schools.
“Our rural communities are knit together by their public schools,” says Pastor Charles Johnson, head of the public education advocacy group Pastors for Texas Children. “It’s why they tend to oppose privatization, no matter who is pushing it.”
A similar dynamic is playing out in other key 2020 states. Even as Trump tries to lure back disaffected suburban moderates and hold on to his loyal rural supporters, his administration is peddling an education agenda that is increasingly under fire in states that are essential to his reelection bid. The deep divide between what such voters want for their schools and what Trump and state-level Republicans are offering presents an opportunity for Democrats to build on their 2018 gains, and perhaps even deny Trump a second term.
Free Market Fallout
In Ohio, “education freedom” is on a collision course with two important Trump constituencies: rural and suburban voters. For months, lawmakers have been scrambling to contain the political fallout as the number of students who qualify for private school vouchers has suddenly ballooned. Ohio’s urban districts have felt the financial pain of pro-voucher policies for decades. What’s different about the latest expansion is that vouchers have suddenly emerged as a threat to suburban and rural school districts where Republicans hold sway.
Thanks to a handful of provisions slipped into the latest state budget by a Republican state senator, requirements for receiving vouchers were dramatically loosened. Students at private schools can now get taxpayer money even if they’ve never attended a public school, and keep the benefit until they graduate. More budgetary hijinx resulted in a huge increase in the number of Ohio public schools labeled as “underperforming,” making their students eligible for a private school voucher. Some 1,200 schools are on the list for the 2020–21 school year, up from 500 last year, including schools in some of Ohio’s top suburban districts. What began as a program in a single city now effects 95 per cent of Ohio school districts, costing taxpayers nearly $350 million annually.
“Vouchers used to be a Cleveland problem, now they’re a suburban GOP problem,” says Stephen Dyer, an education policy fellow at Innovation Ohio. “We all know how important suburban women are to the GOP.”
Vouchers are also increasingly a rural problem. In Wauseon, a northern Ohio farming community of 7,500, school leaders are now grappling with how to cover the cost of private school tuition for local students. But looming even larger than the brutal math of what programs to cut or which teachers to let go is the question of why the GOP seems so intent on undermining rural schools. Troy Armstrong, who became the superintendent of the Wauseon schools last year, grew up and graduated from the schools here, as did his kids. Armstrong worries about the ultimate aim of Ohio’s swelling voucher program. “Is it to decimate public education so that private schools become the sole source of education? That’s what it feels like.”
Fulton County, where Wauseon is located, went overwhelmingly for Trump back in 2016, and yet it is in communities like this where the GOP’s “education freedom” agenda finds the least appeal. Public schools in rural Ohio function as community hubs, providing places to gather, sources of entertainment, and, most importantly, jobs. “We’re the largest employer. We employ more than any corporation,” says Tom Perkins, the superintendent of the Northern Local School District in the village of Thornville. In a vast rural district like his—Northern Local spans 172 square miles and is the major school system for conservative Perry County—GOP talking points about breaking up the public school monopoly are a tough sell, not to mention a geographic impossibility. “In talking with members of my community, they’re outraged,” says Perkins. “Private school vouchers represent a shift of money to a favored few at the expense of the many.”
When Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos traveled to Wisconsin in January to stump for Trump and promote school choice, their appearance was confined to a heavily orchestrated rally in the Capitol building in Madison. In the very parts of the state where their boss is most popular, the school vouchers at the center of his education agenda are increasingly controversial. In 2013, under Scott Walker, Wisconsin expanded its school voucher program across the state. Last year, Wisconsin taxpayers sent nearly $350 million to private religious schools.
While vouchers originated here as an urban experiment—Milwaukee’s 30-year-old Parental Choice Program is the oldest such initiative in the country—their impact these days is increasingly felt in small rural communities. “It affects them all,” says Kim Kaukl, who heads up the Wisconsin Rural Schools Alliance. “Even if they don’t have a voucher school in their district, their piece of the pie is shrinking as Wisconsin sends more and more funding to private schools.”
For rural districts that have never recovered from the deep cuts to education spending that were a hallmark of the Walker era, the diversion of funding to private religious schools is a costly burden. Under Wisconsin’s school funding model, money leaves as student enrollment declines. Communities that have hemorrhaged population as family farms withered and manufacturing jobs disappeared already strain to educate the students who remain. Rural voters are routinely asked to approve raises in property taxes just so schools can continue operating or to defray the cost of sending local students to religious schools.
In 2016, voters in Florence County voted to hike their own taxes for a major school improvement project, while also pulling the lever for Donald Trump by the largest margins of any Wisconsin county. While Florence may be a geographic outlier—the remote northeastern county borders Michigan’s Upper Peninsula—the phenomenon of conservative voters’ hiking their taxes to pay for schools is increasingly the norm. In recent years, the number of such appeals has skyrocketed, especially in rural communities. In 2018 alone, taxpayers agreed to pay an additional $2 billion in property taxes to support their local schools; of the measures that went before voters that year, nearly 90 percent were approved.
There is an obvious political paradox at play here. In the reddest reaches of Wisconsin, the same communities that are voting to hike their own taxes in order to save their local schools are electing and reelecting GOP lawmakers who’ve consistently embraced policies that weaken those schools. Kaukl lays at least part of the blame on what he calls politicking. Wisconsin’s extreme gerrymandering protects lawmakers from voter backlash, while controversial measures like vouchers are never voted on openly but instead quietly tucked into massive budget bills. Says Kaukl: “Republicans know how unpopular these policies are. It’s hard to get them to come to rural communities and talk about education because they know they’ll get chewed up.”
Across the border in Michigan, another key battleground state, rural schools are faring just as poorly. While Michigan’s constitution prohibits diverting public funds to private religious schools, years of funding cuts have taken a steep toll on rural districts. Nor can communities turn to local taxpayers for help—state law largely prohibits it. When David Arsen, a professor of education policy at Michigan State University, mapped the impact of decades of funding cuts to local school districts, he found dramatic declines in rural, small-town and suburban Michigan, areas that are disproportionately represented by Republican legislators. “These are places where schools are viewed as central to community life and yet the decline in funding has forced local schools to cut the services that students need and parents want,” says Arsen.
In 2018, Democrats in Michigan made significant inroads into longtime Republican suburban strongholds by running as advocates for the state’s embattled public schools. One of the most dramatic upsets came in Wayne County, where Dayna Polehanki, a teacher who’d never run for office before, defeated GOP challenger Laura Cox despite being outspent by more than two to one. Polehanki focused relentlessly on the poor state of K-12 education in Michigan, calling for a hike in school spending and the elimination of the profit motive from schools, topics about which her opponent had little to say. Cox, meanwhile, is now the head of the Republican Party in Michigan, tasked with ensuring that the state remains in the Trump column in 2020.
And yet unlike in Texas, where GOP lawmakers are scrambling to distance themselves from unpopular education policies, Michigan Republicans will find such a rebranding act hard to pull off. The DeVos family’s outsize role in Michigan politics, including bankrolling the Republican Party, keeps the GOP tethered to a pro-privatization, anti–public school vision, whether or not it resonates with the party’s constituents. In the 2018 election cycle alone, the extended DeVos clan ponied up more than $11 million in political donations to favored candidates and causes. Then there’s the family’s willingness to primary candidates who stray from school choice orthodoxy. Says Arsen: “Republicans will lose a growing share of Michigan voters if the DeVos family continues to insist that the party’s candidates endorse the family’s education policy positions.”
Yet if Democrats are aware that the roiling politics of education offer the party a potential opening in crucial 2020 states, they are keeping it awfully quiet. On the campaign trail and the debate stage, when education surfaces as an issue at all, the presidential contenders stick to bumper-sticker stuff: higher-pay for teachers, more funding for high-poverty schools, fewer high-stakes tests. Nor do the Democrats have much to say about the rural schools attended by one-quarter of American kids. Public education, as the would-be presidents define it, seems to be a city thing. And other than Betsy DeVos’ reliable role as party punching bag, the Democrats have directed relatively little energy towards distinguishing their vision from Trump’s. Indeed far more ink has been spilled over the party’s internecine dispute over charter schools, an issue that barely affects rural and suburban voters, than on the existential threats to public education in must-win states.
In order to capitalize on voter dissatisfaction with GOP education policies, Democrats will have to do more than malign Betsy DeVos. They will also have to draw a sharp distinction from recent Democratic party orthodoxy on public education. For the past three decades, Democrats have embraced the market-oriented thinking that is now reaching its logical conclusion in the form of “education freedom.” By making the rhetoric of individual choice and competition their own, Democrats have inadvertently eroded the idea of education as a public good, making its defense, and the case for higher spending on schools, that much more difficult. And yet, as voters from Texas to Wisconsin to Michigan have demonstrated, public education remains at the very core of Americans’ hopes for their children and their communities. Democrats would do well to listen to them.