The GOP’s Public-Education Dilemma

A conservative teacher’s surprise victory in the Kentucky legislature indicates that rural voters expect more from the party that presents itself as their champion.

Kentucky teachers protest inside the state Capitol.
Teachers from across Kentucky gather inside the state Capitol to rally for increased funding and to protest changes to their state-funded pension system on April 13, 2018. (Bryan Woolston / AP)

Public-school teachers have long been a vitally important constituency for the Democratic Party, and teachers’ unions are known for backing progressive causes. It must be said, though, that not all public-school teachers are on the left. Some are social conservatives who resent the fact that the mainstream of the Republican Party is, by their lights, so hostile to their interests. For the most part, these teachers have been invisible. Either they’ve chosen to put aside their reservations about education policy and vote for GOP candidates on other grounds, or they’ve supported Democrats despite their misgivings about the party’s approach to issues other than public education. But in Kentucky, one conservative teacher, Travis Brenda, was so dismayed by a pension-reform bill that he decided to run for the Republican nomination in the rural state House seat held by a much-admired GOP incumbent, Jonathan Shell, one of the lawmakers most responsible for its passage. And on May 22, Brenda won, despite having been massively outspent by Shell.

What should we make of Brenda’s victory? One interpretation is that it is a sign of the Republican Party’s ongoing ideological evolution. For some time now, the appeal of fiscal conservatism has been waning, and the party has been more unified by shared cultural sensibilities than by an unwavering commitment to shrinking the size and scope of government. Brenda’s campaign, for example, heavily emphasized the fact that he was a pro-life Christian and a staunch defender of gun rights, as if to nip in the bud the suggestion that he is a cat’s paw of the cultural left. Thus far, he has succeeded. Will he also succeed in getting Kentucky to devote a larger share of its budget to teacher salaries? That will be a lot more challenging, and not because Brenda’s fellow Kentucky Republicans are bitterly opposed to public education.

Brenda is ideally placed to make the case for higher teacher pay. He teaches at Rockcastle County High School, in the heart of Appalachia, one of America’s poorest, most deprived regions, and he is by all accounts a credit to his profession. If there is a case for boosting teacher pay, surely it is strongest in communities like Brenda’s, which often struggle to find dedicated, high-quality professionals who might otherwise find more lucrative work. This, to my mind, is one of the more frustrating aspects of the teacher-pay debate. As a political matter, it makes sense for public-school teachers to present a united front, as if every single one of them is justly and equally aggrieved.

But that is simply not the case. Like all professionals, public-school teachers choose where to work on the basis of a number of factors, including student quality and other non-pecuniary characteristics. Simply put, most teachers find it more appealing to teach affluent students from stable homes than their disadvantaged peers, and they are often willing to accept less compensation in exchange for more congenial working conditions. (Indeed, the most effective way to improve educational outcomes in America might be to pursue policies that raise parental incomes.) One can believe that teacher pay should be high enough to attract and retain high-quality teachers while acknowledging that this will likely mean increasing teacher pay more for, say, Travis Brenda than for his counterpart at a public school in a well-off suburb. Or it could mean boosting starting salaries and raises during the early part of a teacher’s career, when their effectiveness increases most, while enrolling these new recruits in more sustainable retirement plans. By opposing pension reform, Brenda and his allies diminish the prospects for such a compromise, to the detriment of future teachers and students alike.

Still more vexing is the tension between Brenda’s opposition to pension reform, the chief motivation behind his primary challenge, and his opposition to broad-based state tax increases. Throughout his primary campaign, he criticized the Kentucky legislature for broadening the state sales tax to cover a wide array of services, on the grounds that they ought to have instead raised taxes on the wealthy. Again, the political logic of this stance is impeccable. Most voters, including many Republican voters, are amenable to the idea of making the tax burden more steeply progressive. The trouble is that Kentucky doesn’t have many rich people to squeeze.

Whereas cities like New York and Washington, D.C., are home to entrenched economic agglomerations that keep high-income professionals tethered to them, even in the face of heavy taxation, Kentucky finds itself in a less favorable position. The state is not home to the central nervous system of the global financial system, or the sprawling capital of the mightiest republic the world has ever known. Silicon Valley did not take root in Kentucky’s rolling hills. Before you blame Kentuckians for having failed to convince Stanford University to relocate to Bowling Green, note that economic agglomerations typically take decades to emerge. They are built on cumulative advantages, not unlike those setting apart a wealthy Mayflower descendant from the offspring of a family that has been poor for generations. Los Angeles might be in a position to hike taxes on its rich residents. Where else will its armies of creative entrepreneurs be able to rub shoulders with their peers? Where else will they have access to the cultural amenities that are a product of its density? And lest we forget, the city’s Mediterranean climate can’t be beat. The same isn’t as true of Louisville or Lexington, beautiful cities that, for all their virtues, don’t have the same magnetic pull.

As the sociologist Josh McCabe has explained, Kentucky and other poorer, more rural states have less fiscal capacity than richer, more urban states. To illustrate his point, McCabe compares West Virginia and New Jersey, both of which devote the same 3.5 percent share of their respective state GDPs to educational salaries and benefits. However, because New Jersey is so much richer than West Virginia, this translates into average teacher salaries that are much higher ($69,623 versus $45,701). Granted, the cost of living is substantially higher in New Jersey, as McCabe acknowledges. But attracting and retaining high-quality teachers is far harder in depressed rural communities with limited labor-market opportunities than in more urbanized states, where, for example, it is much easier for both members of a two-earner couple to find work. Can the teacher pay gap between New Jersey and West Virginia be closed through higher state taxes in the latter? Not according to McCabe, who observes that “to attain per-pupil spending on par with New Jersey’s, West Virginia would need to substantially increase the tax burden on its already poor residents far above and beyond that of any other state.” This is the option Brenda rejects for Kentucky in the hope that local millionaires will feel the breach—local millionaires who are, when compared to millionaire-laden New Jersey, strikingly rare.

There is another solution, which is that the federal government could step in. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer has called for rolling back the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act’s tax cuts for high-income households to finance a grant to states and school districts around the country that would provide $50 billion over 10 years to boost salaries. Leaving aside the fact that Schumer has already called for rolling back said tax cuts to finance an infrastructure overhaul, this proposal is a political masterstroke, which will surely energize many of America’s 3.2 million public-school teachers. But given the composition of the Democratic Party’s base, can we really expect that these funds will flow to states with below-average fiscal capacity, most of which are Republican-leaning? Or will it instead flow to states with above-average fiscal capacity that reliably vote for Democratic candidates, many of which face crippling pension burdens that they’ll be looking to Democrats in Congress to address? Cynic that I am, I strongly suspect Schumer and his allies will see to the interests of their voters first, even if that means Kentucky gets shortchanged. As for who will ride to the rescue of the public-school teachers of Kentucky and other states that could use a helping hand, the most likely answer, alas, is no one.

But I will tell you who should take up their cause: Schumer’s longtime rival, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. Shell, the candidate Travis Brenda knocked off in his primary, was a man McConnell had recently dubbed “one of the most important Republicans in Kentucky.” His defeat ought to concentrate McConnell’s mind. The GOP coalition is changing, and rural voters expect more from the party that presents itself as their champion, as evidenced by Brenda’s surprise victory. And there is a ready way to meet their demands. McCabe has called for a program of “fiscal equalization” that would help ensure that states with below-average fiscal capacity have the resources they need to fund high-quality services, drawing on similar policies in Canada and other federal states. Republicans would be wise to embrace the idea. If they don’t, expect more Brendas to fell more Shells.