Published Online:

GOP Not Walking in Lock Step on School Issues

Article Tools
  • PrintPrinter-Friendly
  • EmailEmail Article
  • ReprintReprints
  • CommentsComments

Hartford, Conn.

When it comes to school choice, Judith G. Freedman is the Benedict Arnold of this state's Republican Party.

Ms. Freedman was installed as the Senate's chairwoman of the legislature's single education committee after 1994 election victories put the GOP in control of the state Senate, 19-17. But from her new seat of power, the former kindergarten teacher last year helped beat back a private-school-voucher proposal offered by her party's chieftain, Gov. John G. Rowland.

Ms. Freedman has assumed a high-profile role this year in the campaign spearheaded by the state teachers' unions to shoot down a pilot voucher proposal for Hartford. Last week, at a five-hour public hearing on education issues, she sat at the committee table flanked by two Democratic colleagues, including her co-chairman from the House.

Like teammates working from the same game plan, they rebuffed virtually everyone who testified that choice could be a good thing for schools.

"The issue is not as cut and dried as it's made out to be," she said at one point during the hearing. "And that's a concern of many in this committee and many in this legislature."

Indeed, Ms. Freedman is not the only turncoat Republican on school choice in Connecticut. The Senate vice chairman of the education committee, Republican John A. Kissel, has been a solid no vote on vouchers. Also, voucher supporters say, about 10 GOP members voted against a voucher bill that failed to pass the Democrat-controlled House by a single vote in 1994.

"This is just not one of those issues where you're going to toe the party line, particularly when the senior party member of the education committee is hostile to it," said Laurance D. Cohen, the director of the Yankee Institute for Public Policy Studies in Connecticut and a school-choice advocate.

The Enemy Within

While the GOP split over choice in Connecticut hardly amounts to civil war, it illustrates the division within the party nationally on school issues.

Republicans swarmed to power in 1994, winning 14 of 19 governor's races and picking up 480 statehouse seats, in addition to taking control of both houses of Congress. But GOP officeholders hoping to foment revolution occasionally have found enemies within their own ranks.

Strains within the Republican monopoly on power in Pennsylvania--the party controls the House, the Senate, and the governor's seat--were evident last spring. Gov. Tom Ridge won the support of at least 20 Democrats in the 203-member House when he pushed to repeal many school mandates and introduce charter schools and vouchers, according to David Kirkpatrick, who headed the state's school-choice coalition. But roughly 30 Republicans voted against the governor's package when it lost by seven votes in June.

"It's unusual for a strong Republican governor to lose votes in those numbers," said Mr. Kirkpatrick, now a visiting fellow at the Blum Center for Parental Freedom in Education at Marquette University in Milwaukee. "It wasn't a majority of his party, but it hurt him."

In some states, Republicans elected in the 1994 sweep have sought a more conservative brand of reform than their more veteran, more moderate party mates. The clash between the Young Turks and the old bulls in Washington state contributed to the decision by Bill Brumsickle, the chairman of the House education committee there and a four-term lawmaker, not to seek re-election next November.

"With the kind of debates that we had, I decided, 'I don't need this,"' said Mr. Brumsickle, who spent 30 years as a teacher and administrator in the state's public schools.

Although the state's Democrat-controlled Senate has squashed some legislation passed by the Republican-majority House, division within the GOP ranks has stalled efforts to toughen welfare and juvenile-justice laws as well as to codify parents' rights in schools, Mr. Brumsickle said.

"There were a lot of shots fired over the bow, but they didn't go anywhere," he said. "They just fizzled out."

Listening to Constituents

In Connecticut, the GOP split over school choice has handicapped a movement that has strong bipartisan appeal. The House is controlled by Democrats, but enough urban lawmakers back the idea that 24 House Democrats endorsed a voucher proposal on a 71-71 vote in 1994.

Also, big-name Connecticut Democrats, such as U.S. Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, are pushing voucher legislation.

Still, enough GOP members remain opposed to vouchers to block the legislation. The defecting party members are heeding the wishes of constituents who are reluctant to embrace a fix for schools that they don't see as broken, Republican state Rep. Christopher Depino said.

"Some of us come from suburban areas where the test scores are high and the quality of schools is good," said Mr. Depino, the state GOP chairman. "The pervasive thinking in some of these areas is that [vouchers] will take money away from the good schools already there."

Others see the divide in the party as a symptom of the state's quirky politics. Connecticut is one of the few states with a legitimate third party--A Connecticut Party--and voters here value politicians who steer a course independent of their parties.

Moreover, many state GOP leaders snub the "peasants with pitchforks" political themes of Republicans such as presidential hopeful Patrick J. Buchanan, said Douglas Rae, a professor at the Yale University school of management in New Haven, Conn., who studies regional and state policy.

"They're more liberal, more corporate," Mr. Rae said. "The link to Buchanan-style populism is more attenuated."

Some Republicans opposed to vouchers, however, argue that their fight is rooted in many conservative themes. Fiscal conservatives fear that school choice could drain the state budget, Sen. Kissel said, and conservatives who stress family values worry that the transfers of students resulting from a voucher program could threaten the neighborhood-school concept.

"It's not that we're coming at this from some liberal, left-wing perspective," he said. "Those are all big Republican stumping points and priority issues."

Showdown in Committee

The gulf between Connecticut Republicans on school choice is perhaps best displayed by the leading players on the education committee. Republican Rep. Tim Barth, a key voucher supporter, is a veteran of the war in the Persian Gulf who came to the House in 1992 with a burning conviction that public schools were failing.

Student scores on state tests were abysmal, Mr. Barth said in an interview here in the Capitol last week. "Even in the wealthiest towns they weren't very good. But in the inner cities, they were nothing short of a disaster."

Early in his career, Mr. Barth rankled the committee's leadership when he pushed vouchers in news conferences with nationally known conservatives. That leadership, once solidly Democratic, now includes Ms. Freedman.

Unlike Mr. Barth, she is a veteran lawmaker, a fifth-term senator whose husband, Samuel, was also a longtime Connecticut legislator. She has served on the school board in Westport. Her daughter, now 24, is handicapped but was enrolled in public schools most of her youth.

"I have a very strong feeling about public education and about how it has helped me and my daughter," Ms. Freedman said last week in a telephone interview. "The state promises to provide an education for all students, and we have to live up to that promise."

Polls of constituents from her district, an affluent suburb of New York City, show they are satisfied with their schools and overwhelmingly opposed to vouchers, she said.

Ms. Freedman and her fellow GOP defectors may soon be on the hot seat. Legislative rules dictate that any bills to be considered by the full legislature must be approved by her committee this week. If the voucher proposal dies in committee, advocates would have to go through an arduous petition process to win a vote in either the House or Senate.

Some Senate Republican leaders said they aim to persuade Ms. Freedman to sign on to the bill. But she said she has yet to hear from them.

"They all know where I stand on this issue," she said. "But I don't know where they all stand on it."

Web Only

You must be logged in to leave a comment. Login | Register
Ground Rules for Posting
We encourage lively debate, but please be respectful of others. Profanity and personal attacks are prohibited. By commenting, you are agreeing to abide by our user agreement.
All comments are public.

Back to Top Back to Top

Most Popular Stories