Republican leaders have found an issue they believe can unite their fractured base while broadening the party’s appeal among blacks, Hispanics and Catholics: school choice.
Touted by Republican activists as a “can’t lose” issue, school choice - generally defined as tax breaks for parents who send their children to private schools - was given a boost by a recent poll showing that support for vouchers among minorities has increased significantly in the last year and a half.
The poll, taken by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a black think tank, suggests 57 percent of blacks, 65 percent of Hispanics and 48 percent of whites support publicly funded tuition vouchers to pay for private education. The number for blacks represents an increase of nearly 11 percentage points since January 1996. School choice has long been popular with Catholics, but the survey did not measure their support.
The numbers, some GOP strategists assert, make it the perfect wedge issue: Minority parents and Catholics will be drawn to the GOP, while the Democratic Party - beholden to the teachers unions and civil rights organizations that oppose school choice - fights to protect the status quo.
“School choice is an outstanding issue with Republicans because it resonates with their traditional white base in the suburbs,” said Ralph Reed, who departed as head of the Christian Coalition this year to form a consulting firm. “At the same time, it’s a great way to take the traditional view that Republicans are the party favoring the wealthy and being out of touch with the poor and minorities and invert that image.”
Republican leaders in Congress are gearing up for what could be the first test of that concept this fall. House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., said a week ago he plans to push for a floor vote on the so-called “A+ Accounts” bill.
The measure would allow parents, relatives or scholarship sponsors to establish after-tax savings accounts for a child’s primary and secondary education. Up to $2,000 a year per child could be contributed. The real benefit is that the accrued interest would be tax free.
The money could be used for private school tuition or public school expenses such as tutors or computer purchases. Families with incomes up to $95,000 would be eligible.
Even though supporters argue it does not use federal dollars and is not a voucher program, President Clinton has opposed the plan vehemently. When GOP leaders included it in the balanced-budget and tax-cut deal this summer, Clinton threatened to veto the entire bill unless that provision was taken out. Republican negotiators complied.
Now Gingrich is sponsoring it as a bill, and in the Senate, Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., has joined original sponsor Sen. Paul Coverdell, R-Ga.
Critics call A+ Accounts a euphemism for vouchers. Government money - which is lost from not taxing interest - would help finance private education. The Republican strategy, critics say, is to get a foot in the door to push a full-scale voucher program, which would devastate public schools and benefit primarily the wealthy.
“This is not the first voucherlike proposal that Sen. Coverdell has made,” said Education Secretary Richard W. Riley. “And it’s clearly just that: another effort, through policy changes, to shift public tax dollars to private schools.”
School choice is not a new issue for the GOP, particularly Christian conservatives. And Republican strategists have long maintained that the party could make inroads with minorities in poor urban areas by advocating school choice.
The heightened dissatisfaction among minorities and highly publicized efforts by African Americans in several major cities to create alternatives to public education have given steam to the issue for Republicans. The current environment gives the party an opportunity to expand its base without compromising core principles, supporters say.
“Some issues are designed politically to help attract a certain pool of people,” Coverdell said in an interview. “But this is a conviction that has found kindred soul mates.”
At a Midwest Republican Conference in Indianapolis a month ago, several speakers, including Gingrich, 1996 vice presidential candidate Jack Kemp and former Tennessee Gov. Lamar Alexander, talked about the importance of broadening the party’s base.
While party leaders continue to advocate the repeal of affirmative action programs, most are not emphasizing that right now. Some prominent black Republicans, most notably Rep. J.C. Watts, Okla., have advised Gingrich, Republican National Committee Chairman Jim Nicholson and others that a big move on affirmative action could hamper outreach efforts.
School choice, on the other hand, helps outreach. If the party can allay fears many minorities have that Republicans are not concerned about their interests, it could have more success later in the debate over race-based preference programs.
“Despite Newt’s reputation as being a redneck racist in a lot of the black community, if he walks in the black community talking about the chance to give children a good education, he can’t lose,” said Raynard Jackson, a black Republican activist.
The issue is tricky for Republicans, who have accused Clinton of manufacturing positions based on polls. In this case, GOP strategists say, the idea is to change the terms of the debate so it has broader appeal.
Conservative radio talk-show host Oliver L. North said: “It is the right thing to do, and it’s a great political issue. I mean Bill Clinton, Al Gore and Jesse Jackson all send their kids to private school, but they don’t want the same thing for their constituents.”
Sandra Feldman, president of the American Federation of Teachers, said it is no surprise that blacks and Hispanics are increasingly unhappy about public school education. But she said vouchers - and in this case, the Coverdell plan - will further undermine those schools.
Vouchers, she said, are meant to primarily benefit upper-middle class and wealthy whites who already send their children to private schools.
Even with vouchers, most families could not afford to send their children to pricey private schools, which often cost in excess of $10,000 a year, Feldman said. She said that if Republicans really cared about improving public education, they would advocate greater investment in public schools.
“It’s so ironic that you get Gingrich and the Republicans suddenly championing an issue based on the desires and needs of poor and minority parents,” Feldman said, adding that vouchers would “ultimately hurt those very people.”