Eight months out from a midterm election cycle that is shaping up to be a bloodbath for Democrats, Republican Senator Rick Scott recently released an “eleven-point plan to rescue America” that speaks volumes about the GOP’s posture on education. Indeed, the document’s very first point is education, in which Scott calls for all students to “say the pledge of allegiance, salute the Flag, learn that America is a great country, and choose the school that best fits them.” From there, his education plan outlines twelve sub-bullets that check off all of the right’s grievances, ranging from the fashionable (e.g., curriculum transparency) to the fusty (killing the federal Department of Education).
Liberals will mostly bristle at the culture war content of the document, but Scott’s pitch shows a party attempting to craft an education message that marries pre-Trump conservatism with Trumpian braggadocio (“SCHOOL CHOICE NOW!”). They may also underestimate the strength of the political ground that Republicans stand on with many of Scott’s ideas. Chief among these are how schools teach race, racism, and their roles in American history in ways that many parents simply don’t like. But before getting lost in that minefield and the motives behind today’s tug of war on schooling, let’s examine what’s missing from Scott’s plan: a serious and good faith discussion and debate of the most pressing issues facing our Covid-constrained education system.
Indeed, Scott’s latest education proposal is a dramatic departure from the one he laid out ten years ago while he was governor of Florida. I should know. At the time, I was living in Tallahassee and actively working to help him implement it. Governor Scott’s “College and Career First” plan underscored three key priorities: (1) transitioning successfully to the Common Core, (2) improving teacher quality, and (3) promoting innovation and choice. These three areas seem rather quaint when looked at through the lens of today’s overheated politics, but they reflect an outlook towards education that was not only more bipartisan, but also more concerned about installing sound policies that lived beyond any single administration.
What we have today is a smash-and-grab version of education reform that features a maximalist approach to securing legislative victories. The ethos seems to be: Throw the current bums out of office and get as much as we can until we eventually get tossed to the curb ourselves. Lather, rinse, repeat. Neither side has a common-ground agenda. Each tries to burn the other down. All of the incentives are organized around fealty to the “national brand,” which in the case of Scott and his role as head of the National Republican Senatorial Committee is to use an uncharacteristically inflammatory and hardline rhetoric when it comes to talking about schools.
At the same time, Republicans have won converts with less strident faces, like Virginia Governor Glenn Youngkin, who has surrounded himself with some highly-respected voices in our field. One has to hope that these more pragmatic figures within today’s GOP can eventually steer the party away from its angry and resentful fringes and towards an education agenda that offers something for conservatives, progressives, moderates, and others to unite around. While this should certainly include school choice, a serious discussion must also extend to raising standards and improving teacher salaries—all of which are part of Youngkin’s platform and were in Scott’s too a decade ago.
With Republicans widely expected to regain control of the House in November, and having a decent shot of taking back the Senate, as well, Scott may get a chance to follow through on his attempt to do populism on education issues. “I’ll warn you; this plan is not for the faint of heart,” he writes in the plan’s introduction. That may very well be the case, but even if Republicans regain their grip on both chambers of Congress, most of the education debate will remain state business, not federal. What’s more, neither national Republicans nor national Democrats seem to show any interest in being a majority party when it comes to getting our kids back on track. Instead, both sides have cynically employed conflict engineers to dictate the strength and direction of our education fights, resulting in today’s zero-sum playing field.
The best way out of this mess is through the states, where thirty-six are electing governors this year, and local communities. It’s here that new moderate political factions must be organized to begin shifting the power center of education policy and politics. For starters, the silent majority has to speak up about the need for schools to focus their limited bandwidth on education recovery. These intra-party coalitions should be motivated by the calamity of 80 percent of Black and Native American students scoring below proficient on national reading tests, and 77 percent of Hispanic students mired under that same threshold. But this will demand a significant time horizon to effectuate, and we should be under no illusion of how much drive and discipline will be required.