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Vice-Presidential Nominee Pence Says Trump Will Embrace School Choice

By Alyson Klein — July 20, 2016 4 min read
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Gov. Mike Pence of Indiana, the Republican nominee for vice president, vouched for the man at the top of the ticket when it comes to expanding educational options, in his speech to the Republican National Convention Wednesday night.

Pence, who has made bolstering vouchers and charter schools a centerpiece of his tenure at the helm of the Hoosier State, said GOP nominee Donald Trump “will fight for equal educational opportunity and loves school choice"—echoing a theme two other high-profile speakers, Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, also hit during their speeches Wednesday.

Pence also gave a quick nod to his own K-12 experience, saying that as governor, he’s been able to grow Indiana’s economy while “making record investments in education.” Trump made a similar claim about Pence when introducing him as his No. 2 on Saturday—the increase of about $480 million in the current two-year budget was indeed the largest dollarwise, according to a fact check by the Associated Press. But percentagewise, it isn’t nearly as impressive; it amounts to 2.3 percent, compared to the increases of 2.7 percent from 2000 to 2008, AP found.

Since stepping into the role of governor in 2013, Pence has gone whole hog on expanding educational options for parents and bolstering career and technical education. He’s also pushed for local control of testing and academic standards, with Indiana becoming the first state to officially ditch the Common Core State Standards in 2014.

And he’s locked horns with the state’s elected Democratic state schools chief, Glenda Ritz, on everything from testing to whether or not there should be a separate agency dedicated to education and career innovation.

Calming Conservatives

Pence’s place on the ticket withTrump has helped Carmen Maddrey, a teacher and delegate for Trump’s primary rival Cruz, feel more comfortable with where a potential President Trump might go on K-12.

Trump has talked about getting rid of the common core and expanding school choice, but Pence “has this record,” said Maddrey, who teaches special education in North Carolina’s Guilford County Public Schools, which includes the city of Greensboro. She thinks Pence would make teachers’ voices heard in education policy. And she’s especially pleased that he has embraced choice programs, particularly for disadvantaged students. “It shows he has a heart for everyone in his state.”

But other teachers aren’t so enthusiastic about Pence.

“There’s just a disconnect between what he’s done and what he says he’s done,” said Jennifer Smith-Margraf, a high school Spanish teacher in Lafayette, Ind., who is active in her local National Education Association affiliate. (Smith-Margraf is a Republican, but not a delegate here at the RNC).

For instance, she says, Pence touts his support for local standards. But Smith-Margraf isn’t a fan of the way he handled the shift away from common core.

“We’ve been jumping around from one set of standards to another set of standards to another set of standards,” she said in a phone interview. “Gov. Pence has not set a clear path.”

School Choice

Last year, Pence notched some big wins on both charters and vouchers. He got up to $10 million to boost per-pupil spending at high-performing charter schools—which was less than he wanted, but still a significant victory. And he pushed lawmakers to lift a $4,800 cap on vouchers for elementary and middle school students.

The issue is personal for Pence, said Betsy DeVos, a delegate from Michigan and the chairman of the American Federation of Children, which promotes school choice.

“It’s not just a rhetorical record, he feels it in his heart of hearts,” she said. “I think he would bring a very keen and focused perspective on the importance of education and education choice in particular.”

Some of Pence’s fans here in Cleveland expect he would use his vice-presidential perch to go even bigger on choice at the federal level.

Rep. Luke Messer of Indiana, who represents the same southeastern Indiana congressional district that Pence once did, said in a quick interview here that there’s a good chance states could be given flexibility to use their Title I money for disadvantaged kids to create school choice programs, as early as the first year of a potential Trump-Pence administration.

Pence wasn’t the only speaker of the night who gave a brief nod to education. Trump’s one-time rival for the GOP nomination, Cruz mocked presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton and President Barack Obama for sending their own children to private school, while opposing vouchers.

Gingrich also hit on Trump’s commitment to school choice, saying that, if he’s elected president, the Republican nominee “will give every parent of every income and every ethnic backrground a choice about where their children go to school.”

Trump’s son Eric also sprinkled education throughout his speech, just as his brother Donald Trump Jr. did in a similar address Tuesday. Eric Trump said that his father was running on behalf of the teacher who “walks through a metal detector” on the way into work, and because U.S. schools are in “30th” place. (The elder Trump has made a similar claim, which we fact-checked here.)

And Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, another of Trump’s one-time rivals for the GOP nod, talked about standing up to “union bosses” to make public employees, including teachers, more accountable to taxpayers.

Andrew Ujifusa contributed to this post.

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