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Republican Gubernatorial Campaign Strategy: Play the Charter School Card

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Bill de Blasio's campaign for New York City mayor was a rarity in American politics; he was openly critical of charter schools and advocated, at a minimum, charging them rent for occupying buildings that they shared with traditional public schools. De Blasio came into office with the very clear identity of being a less-than-diehard charter school advocate. His charter school rent proposal was immediately and publicly excoriated  --not by a local New York politician, but by Virginia congressman and House minority whip Eric Cantor.

It wasn't happenstance. Cantor's criticism of de Blasio on charter schools reflects new Republican strategy to soften the party's image and win votes on a platform of school choice, including strong identification with and support of charter schools.

Texas's Charter School Candidate: Republican Greg Abbott

Most candidates for major local or state positions, particularly governor, scurry to charter schools to be seen as supportive of these vanguards of the school choice movement. That goes double for Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott, who has been touting charter schools in frequent TV campaign ads. In one ad, he boosts charters such as Academy High School in Plano , and has cited charters like IDEA Welasco as exemplars of the kinds of schools that will vault K-12 education in Texas to the best in the nation. Another institution on Abbott's charter school tour was the KIPP Camino Academy in San Antonio . Like his other campaign season charter school visits, Abbott turned his presence at IDEA into a forum on public education , implying that a great many more IDEA schools would be his prescription for Texas.

Based on his increasingly frequent campaign stops at charter schools, Abbott has elevated charters to a central place in his campaign message, countering his opponent, Wendy Davis, who is a strong advocate of higher levels of state funding for public school districts in general. As attorney general, Abbott has had little involvement in state education policy, but he has made charter schools into a cudgel for bludgeoning his opponent's education agenda.

Abbott is not a political anomaly. Among Republican candidates for office, the message of charter school advocacy seems to be designed to resonate with voters frustrated with the purported inadequate performance of traditional public schools, even if the candidates have little or nothing to propose for the vast majority of pupils, like the 96 percent of public school pupils in Texas, who do not attend charter schools. Earlier this month, Davis announced her "Great Schools: Great Texas" plan , predicated on increasing teacher pay and putting more teachers and counselors into public schools, but it is the charter school strategy that Republicans believe will lead to results in the voting booth.

Gubernatorial Charter Advocates in Maine, Illinois, Georgia, and More

Charter schools have received bipartisan support across the nation, witness the mandatory centrality of charter schools in Obama Education Secretary Arne Duncan's competitive funding programs, such as Race to the Top.  But they are increasingly central in Republican campaigns. Republicans across the country are following the Abbott model of education policy campaigning: Align with both nonprofit and for-profit charter schools, tout their innovativeness, and don't mention much or anything about the issues of funding and support for traditional public schools.

In Maine, conservative Republican Governor Paul LePage talks about charter schools as though they, along with private schools, were completely separate from the public schools, even though charters operate under public school mandates. "If you want a good education, go to private schools," LePage has been quoted as saying . "If you can't afford it, tough luck. You can go to the public school." That shouldn't be seen as against charters, as LePage is an all-out supporter of charter schools, but he is obviously no fan of anything else offered by public school systems.

Georgia's four possible Republican candidates for Governor--Nathan Deal, Karen Handel (the former Susan G. Komen for the Cure vice president), Eric Johnson, and John Oxendine--all gave almost unanimous "strongly support" answers to a candidates' questionnaire from the Georgia Charter Schools Association , with only the Democratic candidate, Attorney General Thurbert Baker, expressing any qualms about their substitutability for other public schools or the notion that they deserve even more money than they currently get under school financing formulas. For example, responding to a question on charter school facilities funding, Baker wrote , "When the state originally created public charter schools, we envisioned them as being different from traditional public schools. In exchange for increased freedom, charter schools are obligated to increase their responsibility. Part of that responsibility is handling the facilities costs and startup costs with private funds." Even that mild statement was charter school heresy contrasted with the positions of Baker's Republican opponents. 

In Illinois, Arne Duncan's home turf, Republican Bruce Rauner, a private equity multimillionaire, is a well known philanthropic supporter of charter school networks --not just the Noble Network of charter schools, in which he invests (along with President Obama's commerce secretary, Penny Pritzker), but United Neighborhood Organization, the largest charter operator in the state and heavily supported by the Democratic machine . Until recently, UNO was run by Juan Rangel, who served as Mayor Rahm Emanuel's election chair, and Rauner served as a close Emanuel advisor, but Rauner's candidacy for governor is under the Republican banner. 

Charter Money in Republican and Democratic Campaign Coffers

In politics, you have to follow the money. The editorial board of the San Antonio Express-News found it almost laughable to imagine that what it counted as more than $800,000 in campaign contributions from "charter school interests" between 2006 and 2013 didn't play a role in convincing the Texas legislature to lift the state's cap on charter schools. The Express-News was referring to the findings of a report from Texans for Public Justice indicating that people affiliated with the state's top six charter school chains doubled their political contributions in recent years, comparing 2006 and 2008 to 2010 and 2012. The bulk of the charter school contributions were linked to KIPP, particularly in the Houston area, where Doug Foshee, the former CEO of the El Paso Corporation natural gas producer, sits on the KIPP board and is treasurer for the conservative-leaning Texans for Education Reform . The biggest recipients were gubernatorial candidates Bill White, a Democrat, and the eventual winner, Rick Perry, a Republican, in 2010, revealing a pattern that suggests that charter school advocates spread their donations to Democrats and Republicans.

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo may have scored a $10,000 campaign donation from the state's largest teachers' union in the past few months, but charter school advocates have given the governor much more , including $40,000 from Bruce Kovner, a billionaire among the 100 richest people in the U.S. who is a well known financial backer of Brighter Choice Charter Schools in Albany; $25,000 from StudentsFirst NY, the New York State affiliate of Michelle Rhee's pro-charter political arm; and $14,000 from the pro-charter Democrats for Education Reform. Cuomo says he can't be bought by campaign contributions, but like the editorial editors at the San Antonio News Express, most people would find the notion that campaign money doesn't affect political positions as ludicrous.

Given the large Republican soft money edge across the nation, campaign donations from supporters of KIPP or IDEA are kind of inconsequential to the GOP. In fact, major charter school and privatization supporters such as Eli and Edith Broad and John and Laura Arnold are major donors to Democratic politicians, although it is possible that those campaign contributions make the Democrats a little more charter-friendly. But around charter schools, campaign financing follows a bipartisan mold.  The Arnolds' foundation, for example, has put substantial funding into promoting charter schools in Houston and Louisiana , the latter where conservative Republican governor Bobby Jindal is closely allied with the expansion of charter schools (and publicly funded vouchers for students to attend private schools). Even Republican supporters of charter schools have also been somewhat bipartisan; the American Federation for Children, funded by Republican donor Betsy DeVos , for example, made more than one-third of its political donations to Democrats. Similarly, Michelle Rhee's StudentsFirst Tennessee poured dollars into both to Republican and Democratic campaign coffers trying to win favor for charter schools and school choice.

The Republican Campaign Playbook: Charter Schools and School Choice

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Rick Cohen is a commentator on the politics of nonprofits and foundations, writer for Nonprofit Quarterly, editor of NPQ's Cohen Report, former executive director of the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy

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