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Even with New Trump-et, Republican Platform Sings Same Tune

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After commenting on the Democratic platform on education, I'm turning to the Republican side. While the tensions are clearly more intense on the Democratic side (hardly surprising after 8 years with a Democratic president), the Republicans are threading their own needles.

The overarching theme here is that, despite having a strongly anti-establishment candidate in Trump, the platform is as establishment as ever. That probably mostly reflects that Trump isn't too interested in policy. Nevertheless, there is a lot of interesting language here: 

(1) The over-arching themes of the Republican platform continue to be parental choice, free markets, and local control. The references are too numerous to catalog, but here are some examples on choice:

  • "[Republicans] have established and expanded the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program [vouchers], through which thousands of low-income children have been able to attend a school of their choice . . ."
  • "We propose that the bulk of federal money through Title I for low-income children and through IDEA for children with special needs should follow the child to whatever school the family thinks will work best for them."

And here are examples on local control:

  • "The federal government should not be a partner in that effort, as the [U.S.] Constitution gives it no role in education." Interestingly, though, there is no call to abolish the U.S. Department of Education.
  • "We likewise repeat our longstanding opposition to the imposition of national standards and assessments." Fair enough, though let's recognize that the U.S. has never had "national standards and assessments" and that federal law essentially outlawed the idea some time ago. The real target of this statement--Common Core--was led by governors and others with federal subsidies to third parties. In addition to privatizing the effort, the Obama Administration never required any state to adopt them, though it did strongly encourage adoption and many states started down the path. The best evidence that Common Core standards are voluntary is the simple fact that most states backed out and moved forward with heavily modified versions.
  • "We reject a one-size-fits-all approach to education and support a broad range of choices for parents and children at the state and local level." 

(2) The Republican platform shows a strong schism between social conservatives and the business community. Here are the key statements:

  • "That truth rejects the dark view of the individual as human capital -- a possession for the creation of another's wealth. Parents are a child's first and foremost educators." That's strong stuff, referring to the business-oriented perspective as the "dark view," but what comes next is even more remarkable.
  • "Education is much more than schooling. It is the whole range of activities by which families and communities transmit to a younger generation, not just knowledge and skills, but ethical and behavioral norms and traditions. It is the handing over of a cultural identity. That is why American education has, for the last several decades, been the focus of constant controversy." This almost sounds like the introductory paragraph of a sociology course or one from the university schools of education that Republicans detest so much.
  • The above quote seems less shocking, however, when we consider the next sentence: public schools "as centralizing forces from outside the family and community have sought to remake education in order to remake America. They have done immense damage." You can use your imagination on what that damage might be.

So, looking at all these parts together, the platform is acknowledging how schools form culture (though schools mostly follow culture rather than create it); they just don't like that culture. Rather, the platform writers see darkness both in the business idea of preparing students for the workforce and in the (liberal) values, norms, and traditions that schools help create, as well as basic scientific principles like evolution. This is nothing new. In fact, this conflict is at least a century old, but that's what makes it important.

(3) The platform is much more supportive of vouchers than charter schools. The word charter appears only once and, unlike vouchers, there are no references to any specific cities (hint: New Orleans) where charter schools have been prominent. This is presumably because charter schools are more heavily regulated than the private schools where vouchers and tuition tax credits are used and therefore less aligned with the Republicans' small government perspective (not to mention that the idea, in its earlier form, as supported by AFT's Al Shanker).

(4) While the platform does give a slight nod to evidence, it gets that evidence mostly wrong. The platform reads: "More money alone does not necessarily equal better performance. After years of trial and error, we know the policies and methods that have actually made a difference in student advancement: Choice in education; building on the basics; STEM subjects and phonics; career and technical education; ending social promotions; merit pay for good teachers; classroom discipline; parental involvement; and strong leadership by principals, superintendents, and locally elected school boards." (emphasis added with underlining)

I think even the most Republican of scholars would have to be squeamish reading this. "Choice in education" or "ending social promotion" or "merit pay for good teachers" aren't examples where "we know the policies and methods . . . have actually made a difference." While in each case, you can point to a positive study or two, the evidence on these policies is all over the place. Likewise, there is new and importance evidence that increasing school spending has helped more than previously believed. The other policies in the list are too vague to judge the evidence.

The discussion of evidence is most interesting in the case of vouchers. Extending the above quote on the D.C. voucher program, the full platform statement reads: "thousands of low-income children have been able to attend a school of their choice and receive a quality education." The evidence on this is murky as well. To quote the federally funded study led by Patrick Wolf, "There is no conclusive evidence that the OSP affected student achievement" although "the Program significantly improved students' chances of graduating from high school." Graduation is more important to long-term life outcomes than test scores, so that's a net positive, but it's still messy.

The platform was wise to focus just on the D.C. voucher program because there is growing evidence that vouchers are ineffective elsewhere (at least if we take the "dark view" of human capital and measure student outcomes). The recent evidence in both Louisiana and Ohio provides more cautionary tales.

Is it progress that the Republican platform alludes to evidence? I'm not sure. It's a bit like congratulating a baseball player for swinging at pitches, even while missing every one of them. But, as my coach always said, if you don't swing, you can't get a hit. I like that advice, so Republicans (and Democrats), keep on swinging.

(5) Republicans remain backed into a corner when it comes to choice and evidence. If the goal is for schools to please parents, then any evidence about what has "made a difference" is irrelevant because that evidence is based on metrics set by the same government whose standards and assessments the Republicans are fighting against. The only evidence that matters in that case is parent satisfaction, and we rarely have any evidence on that. The one piece of evidence they should have cited is that parents of children in private schools and public schools selected through choice are more satisfied with their schools. This is harder to interpret than it appears (for reasons I will write about later), but it at least supports their point. 

If this were any other year, I would say, "nothing too surprising here." But it's interesting that the party's new Trump-et is playing the same tune.

Douglas N. Harris is professor of economics, the Schleider Foundation Chair in Public Education, and founder and Director of the Education Research Alliance for New Orleans.

You can follow him on Twitter.

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