Ted Cruz's K-12 Agenda: Pro-School Choice, Anti-Common Core
When Texas Sen. Ted Cruz is on the campaign trail talking about education, the Republican presidential candidate is perhaps best known for two promises: He'll have the U.S. Department of Education end the Common Core State Standards—and he'll abolish the federal Education Department itself.
The first of those would seem to be a nonstarter—the common core is a state-driven initiative, not a federal mandate, and the Education Department has no authority to roll it back. The second harks back to President Ronald Reagan, whose 1980 campaign platform included ending the then-new department, a push that has never gained traction.
That leaves Cruz's other major K-12 theme: support for charter schools and vouchers, which the first-term U.S. senator has put at the top of his legislative agenda since he was elected in 2012.
This year, for example, Cruz introduced the Educational Freedoms Accounts Act, which would require the District of Columbia to use local school funding to support private school vouchers. The current D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, which provides vouchers to students in the nation's capital, is federally funded.
Cruz also co-sponsored 2015 legislation by Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, to allow federal Title I money to follow students to the public or private schools of their choice. And he did the same for a 2014 bill written by Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., to expand the federal government's role in supporting charters. (Neither bill passed.)
Repeating his refrain that educational choice is currently the nation's biggest "civil rights issue," Cruz told media host and commentator Glenn Beck in an interview last year that "school choice is about giving low-income kids the same ability to choose an excellent school that the rich and middle class have always had."
As a supporter of school choice, Cruz has some company across the ideological divide. That's in stark contrast to some of his other positions on touchy K-12 issues.
In today's climate, for example, ending the Education Department would represent the zenith of tea-party conservatives' plans for education policy, said Michael Q. McShane, the director of education policy at the Show-Me Institute, a Missouri think tank that promotes K-12 choice and free-market principles. (Neither he nor the institute has endorsed any candidate.)
"It's tough to go farther than that," McShane said.
Cruz's campaign did not respond to requests for comment on his education plans and priorities.
Empowering the States
In addition to his efforts to expand school choice, Cruz has emphasized state prerogatives in education policy. Along with a former rival for the GOP nomination, Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, he co-sponsored the proposed A-Plus Act last year, which would have allowed states to essentially shrug off federal accountability requirements. (A push by Cruz to attach a similar amendment to the Every Student Succeeds Act fell short.)
He also supported a 2013 bill from Sen. John Cornyn, his fellow Texas Republican, that would have given states much more discretion over how they use federal money.
And Cruz opposed ESSA, the successor to the No Child Left Behind Act, on the grounds that—in contrast to the views of many policymakers and observers—it "continues to propagate the large and ever-growing role of the federal government in our education system," as he said in a statement last year. Cruz did not vote on the final bill that passed in December.
Cruz is one of the few members of Congress to take a truly conservative approach to issues such as ESSA, the common core, and student-data privacy, instead of merely pushing for a watered-down, more gradual enactment of Democratic policy preferences, said Joy Pullmann, an education research fellow at the Heartland Institute, a think tank that supports school choice and opposes the common core.
"When you're working with Cruz's office, they get the threat that the federal government has become to folks on the ground who work with the children in front of them," said Pullmann, who supports Cruz personally, although the Heartland Institute itself is not endorsing any candidate.
Moment of Strength
But on the campaign trail, Cruz recently had an awkward moment related to his support for choice. He had planned to speak at the Bronx Lighthouse Charter Preparatory Academy in New York City earlier this month, ahead of New York state's April 19 primary. But after some students threatened to walk out of the event, the school canceled it.
The cancellation of Cruz's visit to the charter school shouldn't necessarily hurt him, according to McShane of the Show-Me Institute, although Cruz was an underdog in the New York race.
In fact, McShane argued, the incident highlights something important about Cruz's support for charters and school choice, and its backers in general. The incident at the Bronx charter school is a reminder that the educational choice movement would suffer if it became pigeonholed as an urban or suburban movement, or a priority only for Democrats or Republicans, McShane said.
"People support school choice for a variety of reasons. There are people who support a market-driven ideology, and so they support school choice because it will lead to the best outcomes," McShane said. "It's great to see people from across the political spectrum support it, if you support school choice."
Separately, however, McShane questioned whether the senator could articulate a detailed plan to dismantle the Education Department and therefore throw the fate of billions of dollars in federal Title I aid to low-income students into question.
And Cruz is as guilty as other candidates, Democratic and Republican, in "throwing out red meat" to voters, such as talk of ending the common core, instead of focusing on more important issues, in the view of Kevin P. Chavous, a founding board member of the American Federation for Children, which supports charters and private-school-choice programs.
"We've got far more urgent needs in terms of educating America's kids than getting into a war about standards," Chavous said. "But it's easy politically to talk about that because it's become a galvanizing issue. And I think that's unfortunate."
"I give him credit for lifting up school choice where others haven't," he said of Cruz. "But I don't know how much of a priority it would be for him, in terms of his approach to education." (Neither Chavous nor the federation is endorsing any candidate.)
And Cruz's rhetoric is particularly hollow, because there's no real chance the federal government will approve a massive voucher expansion any time soon, said Charles Barone, the policy director for Democrats for Education Reform, which supports charter schools (but not vouchers) and relatively robust federal accountability, among other policies.
"That's about as irrelevant to what the federal government can actually do as talking about common core is," Barone said.
Barone noted that a bipartisan agreement for fiscal 2016 federal appropriations helped boost federal funding for charters by $80 million, increasing it to $333 million—but to Barone's knowledge, Cruz did not help to secure that additional money.
A 'Smart Guy' and a Blank Slate
More generally, Barone criticized Cruz for supporting a "substantially rolled-back federal role" in education and for what Barone sees as pandering to GOP primary voters: "He is with the farther-right wing of the Republican caucus."
Pullmann conceded that if he becomes president, Cruz can't direct the federal government to end common core. But she said his opposition to the standards point to larger concerns among conservative voters about the pressure that the federal bureaucracy inappropriately puts on states and school systems.
"That whole structure is going to keep giving us things like the common core, unless someone eliminates the structure. That's the source of the problem," Pullmann said. "If Reagan couldn't do it, I don't know if Cruz can do it. But at least it's worth a shot."
Sandy Kress, who as a top education adviser in President George W. Bush's administration helped craft the No Child Left Behind law, is especially skeptical of Cruz's support for the A-Plus Act, which would have freed states from Washington's accountability mandates. He said the senator's proposal is not really conservative at all because of its lack of accountability for federal money.
And he said Cruz's stances contrast with what Kress considers the nuanced, thoughtful plans put out by Bush during his 2000 campaign, along with those from Bush's Democratic rival, Al Gore.
In the end, Kress, like Chavous, isn't impressed with what he calls Cruz's mostly "vacuous" rhetoric and his congressional record on education, or any other presidential candidate's for that matter.
Still, Kress, who said he knows Cruz from their time working on the 2000 campaign but hasn't spoken with him in several years, said the idea that Cruz hasn't focused substantively on education might be helpful in one key respect if he does become president.
"He's a smart guy. He's going to be confronted with having to have some sort of education policy," said Kress, who's not backing a particular candidate. "A smart guy [with a blank slate] might be better than a guy like [Democratic hopeful Sen.] Bernie Sanders."
Vol. 35, Issue 28, Pages 1, 17Published in Print: April 20, 2016, as Cruz's K-12 Agenda: Pro-School Choice, Anti-Common Core