Rural Chiefs Have Leverage in Fights Over Choice

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In their quest to bring more private school options to parents, school choice advocates say they’ve run into a formidable and unexpected opponent: the rural school superintendent.

Private school choice—whether it comes in the form of vouchers, tax credits, or some other policy option—is becoming less of a Republican-vs.-Democrat issue, in which party affiliation tends to determine the level of state support for the issue, some experts say. Instead, they explain, school choice is increasingly becoming a rural-vs.-urban issue, with geography mattering more than political leaning.

That shift was illustrated during this month’s election for state schools superintendent in South Carolina, a Republican-dominated state where a Democrat has been declared the winner in a neck-and-neck race that was, at least in part, a referendum on school choice. Republicans in that conservative state continue to reject school choice ideas, and sometimes the candidates who support them.

Support for vouchers and other means of providing public funding for private schooling has never broken cleanly along party lines. Proponents of parental choice give credit to urban Democrats for helping enact voucher programs for Milwaukee and the District of Columbia, for example, as well as a corporate-tax-credit program in Pennsylvania. Still, the GOP has been far more favorable to such proposals on the whole.

“In the past, the overwhelming support has been from Republicans, but I do believe that’s beginning to change,” said Clint Bolick, the president of the Alliance for School Choice, a national advocacy group based in Phoenix. He said Democratic support is picking up in places, while Republican backing in others is not guaranteed.

Evidence of Republican resistance has come not only in South Carolina, but also in such states as Texas and Missouri, where the school choice movement has—unexpectedly—met some of its toughest opposition, Mr. Bolick said.

In those and some other states, choice proponents say, their biggest hurdle isn’t overcoming the teachers’ unions, which are traditionally powerful and vocal opponents of private school choice. “The states where we have strong Republican dominance and yet we’ve come up empty have a common denominator: a very strong influence by rural school superintendents,” Mr. Bolick said.

“These should be great states for us. But the rural superintendents have been the bane of our existence,” he continued. “We underestimated their power. Now we’re adjusting our playbook.”

‘Center of the Universe’

That adjustment involves focusing grassroots efforts to spread the school choice message to rural communities.

Advocates are working to convince rural residents that their tax dollars are supporting a system of general education, and that failing urban schools cost all taxpayers in the state. School choice proponents say they also need to reach out to rural Republican legislators, who are often influenced by their local superintendents.

“A superintendent is about as close to the center of the universe in those areas as you can get,” said Brian McGrath, the program director for the Indianapolis-based Milton and Rose D. Friedman Foundation, a school choice advocacy group.

In many rural communities, the school district is a major employer. Many residents went to the same schools themselves and believe their districts excel. What’s more, in a rural community, the next school may be a very long bus ride away, meaning school choice faces big logistical hurdles.

In rural Clarendon County, S.C., Superintendent John Tindal says he sees the influence of his 3,300-student district in the local community: Residents know who the teachers and administrators are, and as superintendent, he’s highly visible.

“I think people in small rural communities are close to their public school systems,” said Mr. Tindal, who has joined fellow rural superintendents in successfully urging South Carolina legislators to vote down any school choice legislation. “We have the pulse of the people, and that affords us some influence.”

The fierce opposition to school choice initiatives in some parts of the state has prompted Gov. Mark Sanford, a Republican, to tone down his rhetoric on the issue. He’s backed away from his controversial “Put Parents in Charge” program, a 2004 proposal that would have provided tax credits to parents to offset private school tuition. His plan has floundered in the legislature despite its Republican control.

Gov. Sanford, who easily won re-election this month to a second term, will make increasing school choice a priority for the upcoming legislative session, said his spokesman, Joel Sawyer, “but what form that will take, time will tell.”

Going forward, Gov. Sanford may continue to lack significant support in South Carolina for school choice if the race for state schools chief—in which the issue was central—is any sign.

After a recount finished Nov. 17, pro-voucher candidate and Republican Karen Floyd had narrowly lost to Democrat Jim Rex, a former teacher and college dean.

In every other statewide race in South Carolina, a Republican won.

For many politicians in rural areas, school choice amounts to a turf war, said Thomas J. Simuel, the president of the South Carolina Center for Grassroots and Community Alternatives, formed three years ago to push for school choice options for parents.

“You have a lot of Republicans who are protecting their turf, protecting their neighborhood schools,” Mr. Simuel said. And still others fear that giving families a choice of schools will lead to racial resegregation, and more inequities, he added.

Those same fears exist in Missouri, where about 85 percent of school districts are in rural areas and both the House and Senate are in GOP control.

A former rural superintendent, Ray V. Patrick, said much of Missouri’s push for vouchers and tax credits comes from the urban areas of St. Louis and Kansas City. Rural superintendents are especially wary of school choice options because they fear district closings or consolidations, said Mr. Patrick, who is the executive director of the Missouri Association of Rural Education.

Setbacks in Texas

In Texas, choice proponents not only have to contend with rural superintendents, but also a growing Latino population, which tends to favor spending more money on public schools over enacting school choice, said Greg Brock, the executive director of All Children Matter, a political action committee based in Grand Rapids, Mich. All Children Matter contributes money to state-level campaigns to get school choice candidates elected.

In Texas, school choice legislation has repeatedly failed, even though Republicans control the House, the Senate, and the governor’s office.

While some rural, Republican states are fighting choice plans, some states with Democrats in power are accepting laws that expand it. The reasons range from the influence of the Roman Catholic Church to the horse-trading that goes on between governors and legislators of different parties, analysts say.

In rural Iowa, Democratic Gov. Tom Vilsack signed legislation this year creating an income-tax credit for contributions made to school voucher scholarship funds. School choice proponents say the Iowa Catholic Conference’s support was key to getting Democrats on board.

And under Democratic governors, Arizona and Wisconsin this year enacted school choice legislation that had became a political bargaining chip in both states.

Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano signed two narrowly focused voucher bills into law and let a new corporate tax credit become law. In exchange, she won more K-12 school funding. Wisconsin Gov. James E. Doyle agreed to raise the enrollment cap on the Milwaukee voucher program in return for more money for class-size reduction in public schools.

“This is not an issue anymore where we say, ‘We’ve got the Republicans, so we’ve got their votes,’ ” said Mr. McGrath of the Friedman Foundation. “This issue is really starting to transcend party lines.”

PHOTO: Incoming South Carolina schools chief Jim Rex bested his GOP opponent in a race focusing on private school choice.
—John Byrum/Herald-Journal/AP

Vol. 26, Issue 13, Pages 17, 21

Published in Print: November 29, 2006, as Rural Chiefs Have Leverage in Fights Over Choice
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