Betsy DeVos is back, and we can learn a lot from the company she's keeping.
Over the past many years, we've seen lots of groups direct their attention to school choice aka privatization. There have been groups like Democrats for Education Reform (DFER) that have built an argument around a social need--that choice was needed to get a better education for non-wealthy non-white students. There have been groups like those the American Enterprise Institute that have made their case based on the notion that people should have freedom of choice.
But Club for Growth is a different animal. And while it has not been a major player in the education debates, it's launching a big push at the end of this month, and it's worth looking at that push, because it tells us a lot about what the push for school choice is really about for many fans.
The Club is launching the National Campaign for Parental School Choice on August 31 in Concord, New Hampshire.
It's an instructive choice. New Hampshire has become a bit of a libertarian stronghold, and was one of the places where the transformation of the GOP into Something Else first bloomed. It's a personal story for me, because what the new version of the party replaced was literally my grandmother's Republican Party. My grandmother was a well-respected GOP member of the state legislature for many many years, but when John Sununu became governor in 1983, she was not impressed. But while the Democratic Party has not gone away, the Granite State GOP has become increasingly, belligerently right wing.
At any rate, the Club wants to start there to deliver their message that American folks all really want that school choice, particularly in voucher form, and they want to offer New Hampshire's new voucher program as Exhibit A, which is an interesting choice, because vouchers have been failing regularly for years. This newest proposal was floated this year and over 3000 people came to Concord to tell the legislature that they didn't want it. So, lacking public support for the bill, the GOP just went ahead and tucked it into the budget. This is consistent with the history of school vouchers, a policy that never gets put in place by the voters because the voters always vote it down. So when Club president David McIntosh claims that most Americans actually want school choice, actual history would suggest that he's full of it.
Helping the Club launch this national privatization tour will be former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and former Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos. DeVos will be chirping the familiar refrains about how the "union-driven school lockdowns" have revealed the awesomeness of choice." Pompeo's message is expected to be more along the lines of "School choice blah blah do I look Presidential to you?"
It looks to be much of the same old song and dance, but here's why the Club for Growth participation is a tell for what's really going on here.
Club for Growth is a very conservative organization founded in 1999. Their history has been about opposing not-right-enough Republicans, opposing the Affordable Care Act, opposing raising any taxes ever (and so also opposing raising the debt ceiling), opposing any climate changey responses. In 2016, they considered Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, and Rand Paul the "gold standard" candidates. School choice, education quality, social justice--these have not been regularly on their radar.
When they list their own policy goals, it includes reducing taxes (including getting a flat tax), eliminating Obamacare, reducing size and scope of federal government, cutting government spending-- do you see a pattern emerging here?
Club for Growth has learned to pick up some of the language-- public schools are failing, families want "exceptional education," and parents should be able to "access the best available schools" (yes, "available" is doing an awful lot of work in that one). They are not going to even pretend that this is about social justice of improving economic futures, and they are barely pretending that choice is about educational quality.
Club for Growth doesn't want to pay taxes to provide services for other people. Not health care. Not social safety nets. And now that public education is on the ropes after going a few rounds with the pandemic and the critical race theory panic crowd, the Club smells a chance to do away with paying taxes for public education as well.
Now's a good time to remember that vouchers are a trade. Parents get a check, and government washes its hands of any responsibility for education young citizens. "I handed you some money," says the government. "Now you and your kids are on your own."
Club for Growth is a one-issue organization, a group devoted to shrinking government, cutting government services, and reducing taxes that folks pay. Their interest in school choice tells us plenty about what they and DeVos and Pompeo and whatever conservative actors sing on to this tour really want, and the smart money says that what they want is a country where rich folks don't have to pay taxes to fund a system that educates Those Peoples' Children.