August 13, 2008

The Education Party

By: Joshua Xiong

Today’s Republican Party stands in disarray, even as mainstream American liberalism has finally found its own “Ronald Reagan.” It doesn’t seem like a particularly auspicious time for a new book by prominent young conservatives’ Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam called Grand New Party: How the Republicans Can Win the Working Class and Save the American Dream.

In fact, it couldn’t have come at a better time.

At its core, Douthat and Salam’s approach is about using modern conservatism’s time-tested wisdom on economics and limited government to reform, rather than scrap, the modern welfare state. Rebuffing Thomas Frank’s accusation that conservatives only win Middle America’s votes through symbolic demagoguery, Douthat and Salam argue that the GOP can actually offer policies aimed at the working class backbone of the party: childcare subsidies, income tax credits, more stringent immigration laws, and other such bread-and-butter conservative proposals.

The old Reagan Coalition of social conservatives, national security hawks, and supply-side free marketers is showing its age, but they still give voice to legitimate concerns about how to reassure the old guard that they have nothing to fear from these “big government” policies.

Tackling education policy first may actually be the easiest way to allay fears about the Grand New Party approach. Programs for school vouchers, charter schools, tuition tax credits, merit pay, and instructional reform should be the forerunners of any broad policy discussions about the GOP’s path ahead.

This is because the Republican education platform reconciles on a philosophical level all elements of the conservative movement, both reformist and libertarian.

With education policy, deficit hawks need not worry about the government throwing money at the “undeserving”, because it is self-evidently true that no child should have to suffer for his or her parents’ poor decisions. Free marketers and reformists can also take heart that vouchers, charter schools, and tuition credits would at least introduce a freer market of education services, forcing public school systems to become more cost-efficient and competitive. Conservative education reform resists the European-cum-Democratic desire for equality of economic outcome in favor of an ethic of equality of opportunity for those least well off.

Conservative education reforms have also been proof-tested in the states, our nation’s many laboratories of democracy. On the recent spate of 2008 state administered English Language Arts and Math state tests for grades 3-8, the majority of New York State charter schools scored higher than their respective school districts and had more students attain proficiency. They did all of this while working with a majority-underprivileged demographic and with less spending per pupil than the public school average for New York. And merit pay, the comprehensive effort to reward teachers with monetary incentives for better student performance, has had striking successes in majority-underprivileged districts in Denver and South Carolina.

As for their effects on the GOP’s electoral future, education reforms are gaining ground among the demographic Republicans would most like to snatch away from Democrats—Hispanics and blacks—even as it helps to hold on to working class votes. The popularity of the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship—a voucher program that especially benefits kids who come from struggling schools—can be seen in the 7,158 applications filed since its inception and the willingness of many parents to fight for the bill’s renewalAcross the nation, many Latino and black advocacy groups have broken ranks with their Democratic allies to support charter school initiatives. A Republican party that promises to expand on these programs on a federal level will no doubt gain the trust of many parents who struggle to build up in their children the human capital they never received.

Of course, the foes of genuine education reform, from bureaucrats to teachers unions, have both numbers and political power. The failure of Governor Schwarzenegger to reform California’s public schools demonstrates the folly of confronting these power blocs head on. But given that Republicans will likely be the opposition party for the foreseeable future, they can afford to take political risks and experiment with policy.

Moreover, if education reform becomes the centerpiece of a more working-class-friendly platform, then it has the potential to both benefit, and benefit from, the momentum generated by other conservative policies. If the Republican Party backs its ideas for education reform with a policy of childcare subsidies, expanded income tax credits, and faith-based initiatives, it will offer a credible challenge to the Democrats on their “signature” issue: concern for the poor.

While the Democrats would remain the pawns of a rent-seeking educational establishment that clings to failure, the Republicans would be the champions of education reforms geared at helping parents and children. While the Democrats would punish work and saving with tax increases, the Republicans would reward these virtues with tax credits. And while the Democrats would flirt with moral relativism and hostility to the values of working families, the Republicans would make it easier for the working class to raise healthy families and invest in grassroots public works projects like community centers.

In Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, a rising Republican star who has helped usher in a surge of charter school experiments in post-Katrina New Orleans, the GOP may have its ideal spokesperson for this new brand of conservative domestic policy. Coupled with the party’s traditional strengths on national security and social values, the GOP would have the potential to give the Democrats a run for their money with just about every voting demographic.

In the wake of the disappointments of the Bush era, some conservatives believe the path to restored greatness lies in a return to its historic small government Republican roots. But the better bet lies with Douthat, Salam, and others like them, who believe that the political survival of the conservative movement depends on its using its unique policy insights to benefit the poor.

But why force a choice between the two? A market-friendly, working class-friendly education reform package would satisfy both camps—not to mention regain the confidence of the American people.

-Joshua Xiong is a third year University of Toronto international relations major and blogs at Neocon Blues.