Bill de Blasio’s campaign for New York City mayor was a rarity in American politics; he was openly critical of charter schools and advocated, at a minimum, charging them rent for occupying buildings that they shared with traditional public schools. Perhaps it was the unique circumstances of New York City: an electorate tired of much of Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s political package, which included avid support for charter schools. But de Blasio came into office with the very clear identity of being a less-than-diehard charter school advocate. De Blasio’s charter school rent proposal was immediately and publicly excoriated—not by a local New York politician, but by Virginia congressman and House minority whip Eric Cantor.

It wasn’t happenstance. Cantor’s criticism of de Blasio on charter schools reflects new Republican strategy to soften the party’s image and win votes on a platform of school choice, including strong identification with and support of charter schools.

Texas’s Charter School Candidate: Republican Greg Abbott

Most candidates for major local or state positions, particularly governor, scurry to charter schools to be seen as supportive of these vanguards of the school choice movement. That goes double for Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott, who has been touting charter schools in frequent TV campaign ads. In one ad, he boosts charters such as Academy High School in Plano, and he cites charters like IDEA Welasco as exemplars of the kind of school that will vault K-12 education in Texas to the best in the nation. Another institution on Abbott’s charter school tour was the KIPP Camino Academy in San Antonio. Like his other campaign season charter school visits, Abbott turned his presence at IDEA into a forum on public education, implying that a great many more IDEA schools would be his prescription for Texas.

Based on his increasingly frequent campaign stops at charter schools, Abbott has elevated charters to a central place in his campaign message, countering his opponent, Wendy Davis, who is a strong advocate of higher levels of state funding for public school districts in general. As attorney general, Abbott has had little involvement in state education policy, but he has made charter schools into a cudgel for bludgeoning his opponent’s education agenda.

Abbott’s charter school campaign strategy is like that of George P. Bush, the grandson of President George H.W. Bush and the nephew of President George W. Bush, who is running as a Republican for the powerful Texas office of land commissioner. In his campaign for the position, Bush has advocated giving parents more choice between traditional public schools and charter schools—not surprising, given his position as Tarrant County chairman of the Uplift Education charter school network.

Abbott is not a political anomaly. Among Republican candidates for office, the message of charter school advocacy seems to be designed to resonate with voters frustrated with the purported inadequate performance of traditional public schools, even if the candidates have little or nothing to propose for the vast majority of pupils, like the 96 percent of public school pupils in Texas, who do not attend charter schools. Earlier this month, Davis announced her “Great Schools: Great Texas” plan, predicated on increasing teacher pay and putting more teachers and counselors into public schools, but it is the charter school strategy that Republicans believe will lead to results in the voting booth.

Gubernatorial Charter Advocates in Maine, Illinois, Georgia, and More

Charter schools have received bipartisan support across the nation. Witness the mandatory centrality of charter schools in Obama Education Secretary Arne Duncan’s competitive funding programs, such as Race to the Top, they are increasingly central in Republican campaigns. Republicans across the country are following the Abbott model of education policy campaigning: Align with both nonprofit and for-profit charter schools, tout their innovativeness, and don’t mention much or anything about the issues of funding and support for traditional public schools.

In Maine, Republican Governor Paul LePage talks about charter schools as though they, along with private schools, were completely separate from the public schools, even though charters operate under public school mandates. “If you want a good education, go to private schools,” LePage has been quoted as saying. “If you can’t afford it, tough luck. You can go to the public school.” That shouldn’t be seen as in opposition to charters, as LePage is an all-out supporter of charter schools, but he is obviously no fan of anything else offered by public school systems.

Georgia’s four possible Republican candidates for Governor—Nathan Deal, Karen Handel (the former Susan G. Komen for the Cure vice president), Eric Johnson, and John Oxendine—all gave almost unanimous “strongly support” answers to a candidates’ questionnaire from the Georgia Charter Schools Association, with only the Democratic candidate, Attorney General Thurbert Baker, expressing any qualms about their substitutability for other public schools or the notion that they deserve even more money than they currently get under school financing formulas. For example, responding to a question on charter school facilities funding, Baker wrote, “When the state originally created public charter schools, we envisioned them as being different from traditional public schools. In exchange for increased freedom, charter schools are obligated to increase their responsibility. Part of that responsibility is handling the facilities costs and startup costs with private funds.” Even that mild statement was apostasy compared to the positions of Baker’s Republican opponents. 

For Democrats to compete for the charter school vote, there are Democratic candidates that sound pretty Republican on this item. In Wisconsin, possible Democratic candidate for governor Mary Burke is seen as a “moderate/conservative Democrat” and is known for her and her family’s proposed donation of $2.5 million to start the Madison Prep charter school. That may not stand her well with the progressive left of Madison, Wisconsin, but it allows her to compete with incumbent Republican Scott Walker, who is a vigorous supporter of both charter schools and private school voucher programs.

In Illinois, Arne Duncan’s home turf, Republican Bruce Rauner, a private equity multimillionaire, is a well known philanthropic supporter of charter school networks—not just the Noble Network of charter schools, in which he invests (along with President Obama’s commerce secretary, Penny Pritzker), but United Neighborhood Organization, the largest charter operator in the state and heavily supported by the Democratic machine. Why talk about Republican gubernatorial candidate Rauner among the Democrats? Until recently, UNO was run by Juan Rangel, who served as Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s election chair, and Rauner served as a close Emanuel advisor.

Follow the Charter Money into Campaigns

In politics, you have to follow the money. The editorial board of the San Antonio Express-News found it almost laughable to imagine that what it counted as more than $800,000 in campaign contributions from “charter school interests” between 2006 and 2013 didn’t play a role in convincing the Texas legislature to lift the state’s cap on charter schools. The Express-News is referring to the findings of a report from Texans for Public Justice that indicated people affiliated with the state’s top six charter school chains doubled their political contributions in recent years, comparing 2006 and 2008 to 2010 and 2012.

The bulk of the charter school contributions were linked to KIPP, particularly in the Houston area, where Doug Foshee, the former CEO of the El Paso Corporation natural gas producer, sits on the KIPP board and is treasurer for the conservative-leaning Texans for Education Reform. The biggest recipients were gubernatorial candidates Bill White, a Democrat, and the eventual winner, Rick Perry, a Republican, in 2010. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo may have scored a $10,000 campaign donation from the state’s largest teachers’ union in the past few months, but charter school advocates have given the governor much more, including $40,000 from Bruce Kovner, a billionaire among the 100 richest people in the U.S. who is a well known financial backer of Brighter Choice Charter Schools in Albany; $25,000 from StudentsFirst NY, the New York State affiliate of Michelle Rhee’s pro-charter political arm; and $14,000 from the pro-charter Democrats for Education Reform. Cuomo says he can’t be bought by campaign contributions, but like the editorial editors at the San Antonio News Express, most people would find the notion that campaign money doesn’t affect political positions as ludicrous.

Republican politicians like Rick Perry might get some money from charter school supporters, but given the large Republican soft money edge across the nation, donations from supporters of KIPP or IDEA are kind of inconsequential. In fact, strong charter school and privatization supporters like Eli and Edith Broad and John and Laura Arnold are major donors to Democratic politicians, although it is possible that those campaign contributions make the Democrats a little more charter-friendly. But around charter schools, campaign financing follows a bipartisan mold. The Arnolds’ foundation, for example, has put substantial funding into promoting charter schools in Houston and Louisiana. (The latter is where conservative Republican governor Bobby Jindal is closely allied with the expansion of charter schools and publicly funded vouchers for students to attend private schools.) Republican supporters of charter schools have also been somewhat bipartisan; the American Federation for Children, funded by Republican donor Betsy DeVos, for example, made more than one-third of its political donations to Democrats. Similarly, Michelle Rhee’s StudentsFirst Tennessee poured dollars into both to Republican and Democratic campaign coffers trying to win favor for charter schools and school choice.

The Republican Campaign Playbooks: Charter Schools and School Choice

Rather than trolling campaign contributions, for Abbott, showing up with cameras at IDEA and KIPP is about getting votes. Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus, Senator Rand Paul (R-KY), and Rep. Cantor are pushing a political strategy for Republicans to “talk up school choice at every turn.”

“Talking about helping poor minority children softens the GOP’s image and lets candidates offer a positive vision instead of forever going on the attack,” explains Politico’s Stephanie Simon. “And unlike immigration reform, school choice is politically safe; there’s no chance of blowback from the Tea Party.” Republicans particularly see this as a strategy to appeal to Latinos, where they think they can make inroads.

Not only can Republicans keep their far-right wing at bay by advocating charter schools in a school choice paradigm, which suggests minimal governmental intrusion even though charters operate within public school systems, but they can even appeal to Democrats and present themselves as bipartisan. While some Democrats might have major misgivings about vouchers and tax credits for private schools, they are politically squishier about charter schools, often supporting the Republican position on higher charter school caps and easier charter school authorizations, just at somewhat lower levels.

And for Abbott in particular, it allows the Texas Republican candidate to steer clear of speaking out on broader issues of public schools. Last year, the Texas system of school finance was declared unconstitutional in the courts. The judge in that case is now hearing testimony as to what funding should be put into the public schools, including the restoration of at least $3.4 billion of $5.4 billion in education funding that the state cut from public schools in 2011. An expert testifying on behalf of the 600 public school districts that sued the state over finances claims school districts need at least $1,000 more per pupil in order to meet minimum standards. As the state’s attorney general, Abbott may have to avoid commenting on the specifics of the funding case, substituting advocacy of charter schools and virtual schools as the contours of his education platform, but it is all but impossible to imagine Abbott coming out in favor of returning billions to the public schools that his Republican political partners in the legislature slashed.

This new charter school strategy by multiple Republican gubernatorial candidates isn’t just serendipitous. It is a conscious strategy—kinder, gentler, and kid-focused— for a Republican Party that generally has not supported the strengthening of public schools. Perhaps charter schools in Texas and elsewhere feel that they are not in a position to deny politicians like Abbott the opportunity to shoot TV ads in their facilities, especially if today’s denied politician turns out to be tomorrow’s governor. It might be a little bit awkward for charter schools, many of them managed by nonprofits like KIPP, to find themselves positioned by Abbott, Walker, and others as avatars for reduced public sector support of public school systems. Maybe some, however, are not all that discomfited by their use as props in Republican campaigns.

In a National School Choice Week editorial, Georgia Governor Deal lauded both private schools and charter schools as the means for parents “to ensure their child is getting an excellent education to compete in today’s world.” He made his position on charter schools clear. “These schools are given greater flexibility in return for strong accountability for student academic success,” Deal wrote. “By observing high-performing charter schools throughout Georgia, it’s clear these institutions promote competition, innovation and creativity while encouraging strong parental involvement.” He offered not a scintilla of analysis about how to make the public schools of Georgia, beyond the 310 charters already operating, also attractive choices for parents.

Deal didn’t acknowledge how the $1.51 million given to the Georgia Charter Schools Association in the past few years by Home Depot co-founder Bernie Marcus’s foundation and the $3.99 million given to the Association by the Walton Family Foundation, much of it devoted to building charter school capacity, boosts the attractiveness of that choice over traditional public schools, whose staff are often scrounging for basic supplies and services. He didn’t mention the past several years of grants to KIPP in Georgia, including at least $21.825 million in foundation grants to the KIPP Metro Atlanta Collaborative ($2.653 million from the Marcus Foundation, $9.456 million from the Community Foundation in Atlanta, and several large seven-figure grants and PRIs from various foundations for the construction of the KIPP Strive primary school), over $2 million for the KIPP West Atlanta Young Scholars Academy, and funds specifically targeted for KIPP Strive Academy and KIPP South Fulton Academy. These and other grants hint at the private capital that Deal’s Democratic opponent Thurbert Baker pointed to in his explanation that charter schools’ complaints about facilities funding, not to mention operations, might be a little unwarranted.

The Foundation Directory Online lists over 960 grants in the past several years in support of specific charter schools or charter school networks in Texas, more than half of them between 2008 and 2011. KIPP Academy pulled in 208 of those grants, eight of them in the seven-figure range, with major support from a couple of community foundations as well as the Houston Endowment, the M.D. Anderson Foundation, the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation, and the Brown Foundation—plus over $40,000,000 from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. YES Prep Southeast received 106 foundation grants or loans, including seven larger than $1 million. KIPP Aspire Academy got 40 grants, KIPP Truth Academy 35. The Laura and John Arnold Foundation made only a handful of grants, but one was for over $6 million in 2011 to the YES Prep Public Schools. Traditional public schools, which serve the bulk of students in Texas and elsewhere, can only dream about and salivate at these sources of private contributions.

Philanthropic money is flowing into the charter school networks of states where candidates like Abbott and Deal are riding the charter school campaign strategy toward, they hope, attracting black and Latino voters. While some funders such as the Walton Family do also invest in public school systems, many of these funders have made it clear where their hearts lie: in school choice that is increasingly independent of the traditional public schools, even if, in some cases, the philanthropic patrons, such as John and Laura Arnold, are known to be Democratic donors or bundlers. Republican gubernatorial candidates like Abbott, Rauner, Deal, and others have made their choices clear as well, looking to leverage their support of charter schools to attract the choices of voters who might not otherwise support their conservative candidacies.