Republicans are once again passionate about their long-time love school vouchers, believing that the idea of "school choice" is a key to winning over minority voters. But you know who often doesn't like school vouchers? Republicans from rural areas.
A number of prominent members of the GOP have spoken about vouchers recently, largely in the context of addressing poverty and inequality. Politico documents a number of them: House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, state representatives around the country. "It’s a winning issue for us," the GOP's outreach director to African-American media told Politico. "We’re going to be talking about educational opportunity in every state."
Receptions in those states will vary. In statehouse battles over the past several years, it has been an alliance of Democrats and rural Republicans that have opposed expanding or implementing vouchers. For the same reason: vouchers pull resources from schools that need every dollar they can get after years of scaling back.
The debate over vouchers is usually centered on urban schools, since it provides the Republicans' dream pitch: A failing local school has parents of every color and creed looking for alternatives. Siphon money from the big government education pool, and let parents decide if they'd like to use it toward a private or charter school. School choice. It appeals to those dissatisfied urban parents — urban parents who, the demographics tell us, would usually vote Democratic.
"Failing" is a relative term, of course. But there's no question that public schools — like all components of government — are struggling with reduced budgets. According to a Census Bureau report that came out last year, 2011 marked the first year in four decades that per-student spending in public schools declined — but that data wasn't adjusted for inflation. That year, 65.6 percent of spending was from local property taxes, but the amount from the federal government dropped 2.5 percent from 2010 when adjusted to 2013 dollars. That's a constriction that is part-and-parcel with the Republicans' higher-priority message: less government spending. As the graph at right shows, federal education spending in 2013 dollars dipped not quite as severely in the 1980s — during the tenure of Ronald Reagan. Break the schools, offer a fix.
That fix has been less likely to resonate with Republicans representing only rural parts of states, as has been demonstrated a number of times in recent years.
- In Kansas last year, a proposal for a voucher program failed even after it received the stipulation that it would only apply to "high-density, at-risk" schools.
- That bill echoed one in Pennsylvania, an expansion of which went down in 2011, opposed by "Democrats and some rural Republicans."
- A big fight over vouchers in Wisconsin last year saw opposition to a proposal by Gov. Scott Walker from the Wisconsin Rural Schools Alliance and Assembly Republicans. Fourteen members representing rural parts of the state called for more public school funding during that fight.
- In North Carolina, a pro-voucher group ran into opposition in 2013 from, among other groups, the Rural School and Community Trust. Education Week outlined the group's argument: "Rural school districts have long known their fundamental challenge is a lack of local wealth to devote to their schools. … This provision doesn't get to the root of the problem and will most assuredly widen the equity gap in the N.C. education system."
But the most evocative example comes, perhaps predictably, from Texas. In 2012, Tea Party leaders in the state renewed a "school choice" push that had stalled out several years before. The Texas Observer explains that failure: "The critical votes in past voucher fights have been rural Republicans, who don’t much care for vouchers because their districts don’t have private schools."
Rewind to 2005, and the Observer offers a memorable quote from an unnamed rural Republican explaining the concern:
In many parts of rural Texas, where schools and prisons are the only economic engines, the school superintendent is one of the most powerful people in the county. As one rural House member, who wishes to remain anonymous, will say after the debate: “I could fuck a goat and my constituents might forgive me, but I could never mess with the public schools in my district.”
This is the same argument that urban parents often make, albeit less colorfully. Pulling resources from public schools is risky. Even if a school is faltering on objective and subjective measures, it's hard to see how reducing resources will improve the school. Instead, vouchers let for-profit private and charter schools skim the more capable — and wealthier — students from the public school system, risking an exacerbation of the existing problem. In rural areas, with fewer private school options and, often, a stronger sense of community around the school system, those risks are more exposed.
Politico points to a pro-school-choice presentation apparently created by the conservative group FreedomWorks. "School Choice For All," one section reads. "Ideally, parents will have access to their money with that money following the child to the school/institution of their choice." The group is calling for a February 1 march to Washington, as part of a "bi-partisan effort" to garner support for the initiative. In a state-by-state effort, the opposition to vouchers has often been equally bipartisan.