2020 Democratic presidential candidates are attacking charter schools, education vouchers, and test-score-based teacher accountability schemes, even backtracking on their past support. Following other issue debates, education positions are polarizing along partisan and ideological lines. But unlike other areas, education polarization follows a long national move rightward—as many states increased alternatives to traditional public schools and increased pressure on teachers, often over the opposition of teachers’ unions.
Because of these changes, K-12 education is the only one of 16 issue areas where state policy has moved in a conservative direction across states since the 1990s regardless of their partisanship. Republicans went from fully controlling just three states in 1992 to 26 states last year, so we might have expected a broader shift rightward, such as reductions in state spending, but that did not show up in state budgets. Were Republicans able to succeed in education policy despite failures elsewhere? If so, why?
Indeed, state policies have increasingly incorporated conservative programs designed to increase “educational choice” and “teacher accountability” over the last few decades. Charter schools, in particular, expanded nationally. But this movement was not always considered conservative. It started in more liberal states and was initially promoted by Democratic politicians.
The broader educational reforms were promoted by liberal foundations and have been embraced by five consecutive presidents: George H. W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Barack Obama, and Donald Trump. In fact, many of the state laws that advanced this agenda passed in the wake of President Obama’s “Race To The Top” grant initiative.
Conservative actors certainly played a role. Trump Education Secretary Betsy DeVos spearheaded political efforts that dramatically expanded for-profit charter schools in Michigan. Education reform was the most copied bill from the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council’s model bill program. But education reform debates in many states and cities pitted Democratic reformers against teachers’ unions, with Republicans less prominent.
When reforms were combined with slowing the growth of education spending, they stimulated a massive backlash over teacher compensation. Teacher walkouts in six states (and threatened walkouts in others) led even Republican state legislatures to increase education funding. Several protests also targeted educational choice and teacher accountability systems, slowing charter expansion. That led the way to a 2020 Democratic field that has fallen back in line with teachers’ unions’ positions across the board, pushing for more education funding for traditional public schools.
As the decades of conservative education policy ascendance have come to a halt, it is worth reviewing just how much they changed circumstances on the ground. Charter school adoption grew from 10 to 40 states in the 1990s and 2000s, with voucher adoption moving to 10 states. Nonetheless, only about six percent of US students are enrolled in charter schools and one percent are using vouchers. Charter enrollment is now slightly higher in Republican states, but it took a literal hurricane to make them take over a school system.
K-12 education is one area where Republican control of the states has been impactful, though the implemented policies were initially supported by Democratic politicians. As in other areas, Republicans had less success altering spending than in social reforms; adding spending categories was more popular and sustainable than reducing school funding.
Conservatives made progress in education by joining a broad bipartisan coalition. But that is now breaking down. After decades of aligned presidents, market-based education reformers have no prominent spokespeople among the 2020 Democratic presidential candidates. Republicans are losing their Democratic partners for their preferred education policy direction—that may signal the end of its rise.