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2016 Republican Candidates Graded on School Choice


Sorry for not posting in a long time. I started another blog, and work, life, and death have been a distraction. However, it’s election season again, and who doesn’t feel inspired to write during the primaries?

The primaries are always fun, especially for the non-incumbent party.

The 2003 Democratic primaries were particularly enjoyable. I voted for Bush in the general election, but I worked loosely with the Wesley Clark campaign in Birmingham, AL. I knew we wouldn’t win, but it was fun to be a part of the action, and I learned a lot about the political organism we call “democracy.”

Perhaps the most memorable candidate was Howard Dean, who, after opening strong in 2002, screamed his way out of contention following the Iowa Caucus. Kerry ended up winning the nomination, but people forget that he was something of a darkhorse. Even Dennis Kucinich, who had raised less than $1 million for his campaign, was polling better than Kerry in the summer of 2003. Clark didn’t even formally enter until September, and by that point everybody thought Dean was the guy.

The same thing is happening in the Republican 2015 primaries. Donald Trump, a diva with an early lead in the polls, is their Howard Dean.

trump and dean

Photos: Paul Sancya/Associated Press and Reuters







Will it play out the same way?

Who knows, but what I can tell you is where each Republican candidate stands on school choice:



Jeb Bush: A+

What Bush did with education in Florida was nothing short of revolutionary. Two years after losing the 1994 gubernatorial election, he helped start Florida’s first charter school in Liberty City, one of the most underprivileged neighborhoods in a city with the second highest income gap in the country. Two years later he was elected governor, and charter schools have grown every year since then.

He didn’t just rapidly privatize everything like Jeffrey Sachs, he completely reformed the existing system from within. According to the Washington Policy Center:

“Governor Bush established the A+ Plan for Education, which enacted tough standards, required testing of all students and awarded “grades” to all schools. This increased level of accountability has resulted in a dramatic increase in student achievement in Florida, with Florida students well outpacing national average increases in standardized test scores.

For example, scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress 4th grade reading test went up an average of 2.5 points nationally from 1998 to 2005, while scores on the same test increased by more than 11 points in Florida.”

He also implemented Florida’s first dose of private school choice, including two successful voucher programs (McKay Scholarship Program and the A+ Opportunity Scholarship Program) and an STC (Corporate Income Tax Credit Scholarship), the latter of which allows corporations to receive a dollar-for-dollar tax credit up to 75% of their state income tax for donations made to scholarship funding organizations.

Oh, and he did all this without raising taxes for education.

Whatever the education reform issue (charters, vouchers, STCs, ESAs, paid and voluntary pre-school, etc), you can bet he supports it, and he is easily the most proven Republican presidential candidate when it comes to education reform.



Ben Carson: C+

I love Ben Carson. He’s a smart guy, and he was a political rebel long before Trump started grandstanding about things that don’t affect the average American. He believes in education, but as a self-made man he focuses more on students creating their own destiny rather than publicly funding a system to do it for them. For instance, he hates Common Core, and he values homeschooling and private schools over both charters and District-managed public schools.

Frankly, Carson seems a bit cynical on the issue. He thinks preschool is indoctrination, and he thinks public education has become a propaganda system. I’m sure if it were up to him, he’d just privatize the whole system and let market forces work things out.

See his comments from the Carson Scholars Fund luncheon in April 2013:

“I don’t think education is liberal or conservative…This is a time when people need to drop the labels and recognize that unless we begin to change the way we do things, we’re going to fall behind. Forget about labels — focus on getting the job done.”

Regarding school choice, he had this to say around the same time:

“School choice obviously plays a huge role…I think having charter schools, having school vouchers, things of that nature are extremely good because, unless you’re competing for those students, it’s very likely you’re going to become complacent.”

It’s clear that he’ll toy with the rhetoric, but he doesn’t really have a concrete reform plan. We can’t really blame him for this. As a world class neurosurgeon, he hasn’t exactly had the opportunity to involve himself in the ed reform movement.



Chris Christie: A-

Chris Christie has a long record in education. In 1984, as a sophomore at the University of Delaware, he lobbied to have student representatives on the college’s governing board. In 1999, when he was just a county commissioner (aka “freeholder” in New Jersey), he lost a battle to get a charter school operator into the garden state.

Christie firmly believes in a family’s right to choose their school, and he signed a bill in 2010 that allowed parents to send their children to any public school they wanted, provided the school was not over-enrolled. He vilifies anyone who gets in the way of that. In fact, he dislikes teacher unions so much he wants to punch them in the face:

“[Teacher unions are] for greater membership, greater benefits, greater pay for their members. And they are the single most destructive force in public education in America. I have been saying that since 2009. I have got the scars to show it. But I’m never going to stop saying it, because they never change their stripes.”

He doesn’t like federal education bureaucracy, either:

“I don’t see the federal Department of Education deciding curriculum, dictating choices to local folks, it doesn’t make any sense…[top-down programs] frustrate teachers and infuriate parents.”

Throughout his tenure as governor, Christie pressed for approval of opportunity scholarships for urban youth in New Jersey, and might have actually passed it if not for a Democratic legislature. He has also made it clear he would continue to advocate for voucher as a a national leader.



Ted Cruz: B+

Cruz’s has been an open proponent of school choice recently, echoing Condoleeza Rice’s words from three years ago.

“When it comes to civil rights, I think there is no civil right more important than the right of every child to access a quality education…And in my view, the most compelling civil rights issue of the 21st century is the the need to expand school choice and educational options so that every child, regardless of race… a fair opportunity to receive an excellent education.”

Cruz also supports homeschooling and vouchers. While visiting Tennessee in early August, he went deeper into why school choice makes sense as a policy and not just a preference:

“The facts are unequivocal – school choice improves students’ test scores, keeps them in school longer, saves taxpayer dollars, provides a safer learning environment, and increases competition and quality in traditional public schools.”

Unfortunately, as a senator, Cruz can’t refer voters to education policies that he’s implemented himself, only legislation that he cosponsored this year, but his speeches indicate that a Cruz Administration would be avidly pro-Choice and he could always hire someone to execute his policies.



Carly Fiorina: B-

Carly Fiorina brings an interesting spin on school choice among the pool of candidates. As a former power CEO, she’s more capable than most to dig into the microeconomic nuances of her education platform. For example, instead of sprinkling praise for charter schools into her speeches, Fiorina has set herself apart from other candidates by focusing on esoteric ed topics like teacher entrepreneurship and school data systems.

She also strongly supports Education Savings Accounts, which is something we don’t hear enough about. She also wants to audit the U.S. Education Department, which is a refreshing departure from the rhetoric about “reform this, reform that, cut costs here, cut them there..”

“We better understand every single dollar the Department of Education is spending, and they’re going to have to justify every dollar, and if they can’t, they don’t get the money.”

She doesn’t just mention it and move on, either. For instance, read her comments at Campbell Brown’s “Seventy Four” education summit in New Hampshire:

“When Washington spends more money, the quality of the education does not improve…What doesn’t work are big bureaucratic programs from Washington, D.C… What doesn’t work are people spending money on mandated programs either at the state or the federal level.”

Fiorina is one of the best educated candidates from any party in the race, having earned her B.A. from Stanford, and two Master’s degrees from from MIT and Maryland. However, her lack of experience in public service, particularly in a major administrative or lawmaking role could set her back. If I had to pick a business person in this race, I’d choose Fiorina, but I’d still choose an experienced public servant over a business person.



Jim Gilmore: D-


Jim Gilmore is a hermit candidate, i.e. he’s running but he’s not campaigning. That said, we don’t have much to go on regarding his position on school choice. It looks like most of his public education positions have been related to college, specifically the cost of attendance. While I agree that the student loan bubble is a serious concern, it’s outside the realm of this conversation.

In 1999, he called for vouchers in Virginia, but by 2006 there had been no traction whatsoever. They did manage to get a voucher program in 2012, but Virginia to this day has one of the worst charter school laws in the country. I’m not holding this against him, but I found only minimal outrage from him when he was in office.

Lindsey Graham: D+

Graham is one of the most conservative legislators when it comes to public education, but he’s been coy on school choice. He also appears to be adamantly opposed to public education in general. In 2005, he voted “No” for funding 21st century community learning centers, grants to school Districts, and a reallocation of corporate tax loophole money to fund education. Two years later, he voted against $10 billion more for public education.

The stuff he’s voted “Yes” on has been evangelical in nature. He voted to allow prayer in public schools during the War on Terror (..is it over yet?). He supported spending $100+ million a year to teach abstinence a few years ago, and he voted to allow “God Bless America” to be posted in public schools. However, he voted for vouchers in the late ’90s, and has consistently demonstrated his support for parental-level decision making and his opposition to federal meddling.

I just can’t get my bearings on this guy, but neither can anyone else.



Mike Huckabee: B-

During his tenure as governor of Arkansas, the state significantly expanded its support for preschool, creating the Arkansas Better Chance for School Success program and more than quadrupling the number of children served. That program has received good reviews from experts, so that’s a good start on his public education policy.

Huckabee has been a big fan of character education throughout his career, and as a state leader he has a track record of pro-Choice policy. In a 2008 interview:

“…when I was governor, I passed some of the friendliest home-school legislation in the country. I was the first governor in the history of America to appoint a home-school parent to state board of education. She served as one of the best members we ever had on the state board. We made it so that parents had more choices.

“We improved charter schools, and expanded charter schools. We also enabled and authorized virtual schools, so that kids could actually go online to get their education. We ought to be looking at options. We shouldn’t close our minds to different ways to educate students. Again, it goes back to the most important point: school ought to be about what’s best for students, not just what’s best for schools.

In that same interview, he said that the US Department of Education was probably constitutional, but that any “mandate where you insist on exactly what education looks like at the local level” was not. Since then, he has drifted further right, and in May he indicated that we should just dissolve the USDOE altogether because it is wholly unconstitutional.

It’s probably just posturing, but it would be awfully hard to reform public education when the entity responsible for it had been dismantled. Fiorina’s audit makes sense, but Huckabee’s tentherism misses the forest for the trees.

Arkansas also has a charter school law that could use some improvement, though it is headed in the right direction. The same could be said for their voucher program.



Bobby Jindal: A+

Under Jindal’s gubernatorial tenure, Louisiana became one of the most Choice-friendly states in the country, especially with regard to chartering. In fact, his policies took root so fast that many people think he did too much too fast, and without much input from anyone else.

Following Katrina, the New Orleans public school infrastructure was in shambles. The Recovery School District (which existed before Katrina) began taking over chronically underperforming schools and outsourcing them to established and proven charter operators. Charter schools began to dominate reform efforts in New Orleans, a city whose private school enrollment (even with voucher support) declined 10% from 2002 to 2013.

Today, New Orleans is now over 90% chartered, but Jindal’s support for choice doesn’t stop at charter schools or in New Orleans. He protected an important early childhood tax credit from being cut during recent budget negotiations, and he said he favors giving everyone vouchers at the recent New Hampshire summit:

“One of the things that I’d like to see is universal choice…even for parents that can afford it on their own. Why should they pay twice? Why should they pay taxes and then tuition?”

This is an interesting statement, since most supporters of choice tend to base it on increased access to private education for impoverished households. Jindal points out that middle class people, who could pay for private school pay taxes, deserve the same advantages as families near the poverty line. After all, they’re paying taxes for the public schools they don’t want to use, so we might as well help subsidize their choice of K-12 education since they’re subsidizing everyone else’s.

Jindal is probably the second most qualified school choice advocate in the Republican primaries, mainly because he was able to accomplish more in a shorter time than Christie, and maybe even Jeb.



John Kasich: B+

He’s anti-union, and even joked that we should abolish teacher lounges, where he presumes unionized instructors get together and whine about gainful employment. Still, he’s not anti-teacher, which is clear from his comments on how much they’re paid:

“How do we pay a college football couch four million dollars a year and we pay our teachers peanuts? If they’re not teaching very well, we need to either help them get better, or they shouldn’t be teaching.”

He approved $40 million to serve an additional 6,000 preschoolers to promote early literacy. As Ohio Governor, Kasich also expanded his state’s voucher program to 60,000 students. Ohio also added the 5th most charter schools in 2013, and closed the 3rd most, demonstrating the willingness of his commission to finally hold reformists accountable.

However, everyone in the choice community knows Ohio has struggled with charter schools following over-authorization in the early years. Low performance, corruption, and declining enrollment have all raised some eyebrows, especially at NACSA, an organization that likely isn’t happy that Ohio has seven different types of authorizers, all of which (except the state DOE..) can authorize as many as 100 charter schools a piece.

Despite his state’s regulatory issues, Kasich is unapologetic in his support for school choice, even following the July departure of his ed reform chief. Critics (particularly Valerie Strauss) also blame him for lowering funding for District public schools while raising funding for charters, but Ohio’s 27% funding discrepancy between the two means that he was merely closing a serious gap.

Kasich’s willingness to champion school choice in spite of his state’s mediocre implementation of it is a sign of his commitment to the movement, but he loses some points for under-regulating an extensive outsourcing program and turning a blind eye to operators like White Hat.



George Pataki: C+

Pataki is another candidate whose record on school choice is hard to determine. He was endorsed in 2002 by the United Federation of Teachers, a bedfellow with the AFT and AFL-CIO. However, this was after he worked to expand charter schools as governors throughout the 1990s (after enacting the first law), and this is New York we’re talking about so who knows what was going on.

Despite the big city’s recent turn for the worst, Pataki has stuck to his guns on school choice in New York. His campaign’s education page includes his charter expansions as evidence of landmark reforms, and he called out Mayor de Blasio for protecting the “educational monopoly and the bureaucracy at the expense of the children.”

Could he win New York? Probably not, especially if he faced Hillary. I couldn’t find much evidence of a private school choice platform, but he did try unsuccessfully to get an education tax credit passed, so at least he made an effort.



Rand Paul: B+

Like many Republican candidates this year, Paul thinks government is a state and local issue, but for some reason we tend to take his comments about the evils of federalism more seriously than his peers. Maybe it’s his last name, maybe it’s his voting record, but this belief has deeply influences his education policies.

Few things highlight his feelings on education better than his comments at an Urban League event in July 2014:

“I say the status quo is unacceptable. But Washington has no clue how to fix this problem. Washington has no clue how to fix education. Washington doesn’t know whether you’re a good teacher or a bad teacher.

“We should allow innovation to occur at the local level. I propose that we allow school charters, school choice, vouchers, competition. Competition breeds excellence and encourages innovation. And boy, we really need innovation.

“My kids went to great public schools. I went to great public schools. The president’s kids go to great private schools. There are a lot of choices out there. I want to make it where all American get the option of choosing the best schools for their kids.”

It’s clear that Rand is unhappy with Washington’s role in education, but what does he specifically propose to do about it if he were actually working in the city he hates so much?

Rand wants to deregulate home schooling and private schools, and he wants to abolish Common Core. As far as the work he’s done to help decentralize the DOE, Paul cosponsored S 182, the Learning Opportunities Created At Local Level Act (i.e. LOCAL Level Act), as well as  S 2304, the Expanding Opportunity through Quality Charter Schools Act.

Like Cruz, he doesn’t have an administrative track record to show how he’d actually implement his own policies, but it’s clear he’d return power to parents and encourage competition (especially in under-privileged urban areas), so he gets the same score.



Marco Rubio: A-

Much of Rubio’s success in Florida education reform is attributable to Jeb Bush’s policies, which wrapped up 5 years before Rubio became a senator. Still, he supported Bush’s policies while a Florida state representative (and Speaker), so he has every right to share in the spoils of those programs.

It also appears that he’s doubled down on this association with school choice, even if he’s running against the guy who implemented it. This is from his campaign website:

“Rubio believes we should create a universal education tax deduction, perform a regular review of Department of Education programs, make block grants conditional on performance and accountability measures, improve parental access to school performance, improve school choice through a Federal corporate income tax credit, protect teachers from frivolous lawsuits, overcome the [STEM] crisis, create students with disabilities scholarships, promote voluntary Pre-K scholarship, provide opportunity scholarships for students in chronically failing schools, reinstate the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program and promote a national virtual learning platform.”

Interestingly, he doesn’t specifically mention “charter schools” at all, which is probably his campaign’s way of distancing itself from Jeb’s, which will rely heavily on the success of charter schools in closing the achievement gaps in Florida.

Even so, that list includes some fairly specific and important policies, such as protecting teachers from frivolous lawsuits. This isn’t something we hear a lot about, but it was enough of a problem in the late 1990s that Trey Parker wrote a South Park episode on it.

We can already see the damage frivolous lawsuits have done in healthcare: As malpractice lawsuits increase, hospital and physician insurance premiums go up. Those costs are passed onto the customer, driving consumer insurance rates higher as well, which eventually led to the Affordable Care Act. That’s a compelling image for voters.



Rick Santorum: B-

Like Graham, he’s been a very conservative senator, and he supports teaching abstinence, and he voted “No” for funding 21st century community learning centers, grants to school Districts, and a reallocation of corporate tax loophole money to fund education.

In 2000, he voted “Yes” for Educational Savings Accounts, something he voted for two years prior. This is pretty neat, since few people even knew what ESAs were back then, and charter schools had only just risen in awareness throughout the late 90s.

His openness to privatization has persisted, which was captured in this 2011 quote:

“We should have an educational system that serves the customer of the education system. And of course the customer of the education system is the parent. Why? Well, first, because they’re responsible for educating their children….Number two, they pay for it. So of course they’re directly the customer.”

Despite his conservatism, he’s not as anti-Washington as you might think. The same year he voted for ESAs, he favored using federal funding for local vouchers. Santorum also voted in favor of NCLB in 2001, but that could have been in solidarity with the Bush Administration. In 2012, he publicly regretted that decision, and has been a staunch opponent of Common Core since then.



Donald Trump: D+

Unsurprisingly, Trump has criticized the American public education system by pointing out how much it lags other countries. Of course, this makes me wonder why he doesn’t prioritize education over nebulous and distant “problems” like the European migrant crisis and Chinese currency manipulation, but whatever.

Trump has no experience as a public servant. He also inherited a small fortune from his father, and never attended a K-12 public school. All this makes his education policy tricky. Unlike Fiorina, he hasn’t exactly come up with innovative ideas, so all of his school choice rhetoric appears to have been adopted from other candidates and blended into his jingoistic worldview.

For example, in his 2000 book “The America We Deserve,” he claimed American schools aren’t safe and the teachers don’t care, but he didn’t offer any solutions to fixing that. In that same book, he criticized the DOE’s monopoly on education, but again, all he really did was whine about it.

His solution?

“…we’ve got to bring on the competition—open the schoolhouse doors and let parents choose the best school for their children. Education reformers call this school choice, charter schools, vouchers, even opportunity scholarships. I call it competition—the American way.

While I can appreciate his case for inspiring a healthy rivalry within public education, it doesn’t sound genuine. It sounds like Trump was claiming to have invented the word “competition,” and that this idea he came up with was the way all Americans should behave.

I’m convinced that if Trump won, he’d hire people to implement some form of school choice nationwide, but his complete lack of experience or knowledge on the issue today earns him a much worse score than American kids make on the PISA tests.



Scott Walker: A+

People forget that Wisconsin is a purple state. Despite a strong Democratic legislature, Walker has managed to get a lot done as a Republican governor. This takes commitment and political finesse.

“[W]e increased the number of quality education choices all over Wisconsin. Over the past four years, we expanded the number of charter schools, lifted the limits on virtual schools, and provided more help for families choosing to homeschool their children.

“We also dramatically expanded the twenty-five-year-old Milwaukee Parental School Choice program to add more students, more schools, and working class families. Then we expanded school choice across the state.”

He expanded Wisconsin’s voucher program beyond low-income families, a program he described as producing a “vibrant middle class.” He believes in performance-based pay for teachers, and pushed Act 105 to allow school boards to use standardized test scores to evaluate teacher performance.

Walker has criticized seniority and tenure, and he fought unions from Day 1 (which actually led to protests in 2011). He favors local control, which probably appealed to the rural voters who got him elected the first time. All these policies appear to have worked, as Wisconsin graduation rates & ACT scores have risen over the past four years.

Perhaps most striking was the recent Wisconsin budget, which he helped slash $250 million from the state’s bloated university budget. In the same session, he got the number of charter authorizers expanded, which  has been one of the primary legislative objectives for reformists for years. He cut costs and expanded choice in the face of opposition from the unions and WDPI.

While Wisconsin’s charter school law needs some improvement, I’m very impressed by the scale of change Walker has managed to accomplish in just four years.








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