The Way Back for GOP Runs Through the Schools

Joe Mathews
Connecting California Columnist and Editor, Zócalo Public Square, Fellow at the Center for Social Cohesion at Arizona State University and co-author of California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It (UC Press, 2010)

Memo to California Republicans, or at least those who will still admit to being Republicans.

You’re failures. You’re irrelevant. You’re dead.

And that’s just what other Republicans are saying about you.

You’re also getting a ton of advice. And most of that advice is negative – in that it suggests that you need to stop doing things. Stop making such a big fuss about undocumented immigrants. Stop opposing all tax increases. Stop being so partisan. Stop embracing weird conspiratorial theories about the president’s birth.

Most of that negative advice is also good advice. But taking it won’t bring the party back; at best it stops the bleeding. And having a negative argument about what the party shouldn’t be is no way to build a party. It guarantees only unproductive, internal divisions.

To rebuild the party into a relevant force, California Republicans need a positive agenda. That agenda must be clear – and must be focused on a big issue that is profoundly relevant.

That issue is – without a doubt education.

So here’s a New Year’s resolution for all California Republicans. Visit schools. Talk to teachers and students and parents. Think about how to make California’s schools better – the best in the world. And start a debate, first within the party, on this subject.

And in public, don’t talk about anything but schools.

Why? There are dozens of reasons. Here are several.

  1. Schools are attended mostly by young people. They’re interested in the schools. The party has been speaking mostly to old people. A focus on schools forces Republicans to engage with younger Californians, to listen to their aspirations, and try to use the party’s values to serve those young people.

A focus on schools also provides a way to talk to ethnic minorities who have given up on the GOP. With some real listening and thinking, Republicans might come up with ideas that would impact the lives of California’s students for the better. And people like to vote for parties that have ideas for making their lives better.

2. California schools – and how to make them better – are probably the most important public policy subjects in the state. The state ranks poorly on many measures – from student achievement to equity to per-pupil funding. Fixing education needs the focused attention of as many Californians as possible. And Republicans are Californians

The schools are a subject that most people care about. And Republicans have had a hard time raising issues that people really care about. The pension issue has been a dud. So is the obsession with public employee unions. Taxes are an issue people care about, but Republicans have had little to say on the subject but no. And, to be blunt, other GOP hobbyhorses – anchor babies, the president’s birth, the Libya attack, Sharia law – are weird, play to the worst prejudices of voters, and simply don’t matter to normal people.

People care about schools. Everyone goes to school at some point in their life. The public sees the connection between education and democracy and the economy.

3. A conversation about schools is a conversation about the future.

California Republicans are obsessed with the past. They’re constantly talking about going back to earlier times in California – when the state worked or built things or spent less or taxed less. They’ve said very little about the future. If Republicans focus on education, they’ll find themselves talking about the future, and what the state can be.

Another bonus: the right has become weirdly skeptical of science. Republicans, if they grapple honestly with education, will soon find themselves embracing science, given its importance in education and the widely acknowledged need to teach it better. And that would be good for Republicans – and for science and the funding of science.

4. The Democrats are divided and vulnerable on education.

Education is a wedge issue that divides Democrats. Traditionalists and the unions oppose reform, and are full of excuses for the failures of schools and teachers. Many moderate Democrats – and others less dependent on teachers’ unions — embrace strong teacher evaluations, testing and other ideas to improve the schools. It’s gotten nasty, with reformers accused of waging “war on teachers” and reformers accusing the unions and their allies of putting adults’ interests over the best interests of students.

There is huge potential for Republicans to play a big policy and political role in schools – precisely because of this divide. Republicans, despite their small numbers, can – by siding with one side or another in the Democratic education wars – determine which way education policy goes. And by keeping the profile of the education issue high, Republicans can deepen the divide in the Democratic ranks.

5. Schools provide a great frame for Republicans to recast their own values and beliefs in a more positive way.

For example, Republicans typically decry spending on health and human services as welfare or as a sign of creeping socialism. This isn’t a strong or convincing argument in California. A better argument is: we oppose increased spending on those services because it takes away money that could be more productively spent on education.

Immigration? The GOP argument could be: we love immigrants, and it’s important that they be extremely well educated. So if we have too many immigrants for our schools to educate, our schools won’t be able to step up their game. On taxes, Republicans can avoid a blanket opposition to any tax increase by instead arguing that they can’t support taxes that don’t target all their revenues to making California schools better, which should be the state’s top priority.

A final thought. I’m not a Republican, and disagree with party orthodoxy. But I’m a Californian. And I believe the state would work better with a strong Republican party that is a big player in policymaking on the state’s biggest issues. California also needs a GOP that is strong enough to take power back from the Democrats when they do a poor job running the state.

Republicans are a long way from that point. To get there, the GOP needs to go back to school.

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