Getting on the Anti-School Bus

Like a lot of commentators (include Daniel Luzer and myself), Paul Krugman thought Mitt Romney’s recent dissing of the idea of federal involvement in making higher education affordable was pretty significant. Though he only mentions it in passing, Krugman makes one observation that’s worth thinking about:

[N]ow one of our two major political parties has taken a hard right turn against education, or at least against education that working Americans can afford. Remarkably, this new hostility to education is shared by the social conservative and economic conservative wings of the Republican coalition, now embodied in the persons of Rick Santorum and Mitt Romney.

The sudden semi-universal hostility to public education, which is an entirely new thing for the bulk of the Republican Party (at least in places other than, say, Alabama), is indeed the product of a convergence of the economic and social wings of the conservative movement, which now largely owns the GOP.

By “economic conservatives” I would include both the libertarian types who reflexively oppose all public services other than national defense and the enforcement of contracts, and “limited government” folk who think, on fiscal grounds, that the public sector as it has existed for many decades now is unaffordable.

In a trend that has been accelerating in recent years, “social conservatives,” which mainly consists of members of the Christian Right, have come to deplore public schools either because they compete with religious schools or home-schooling, or because they are key instruments of a “secularist” cultural assault on “traditional” culture.

It’s all somewhat unsurprising if unfortunate, since support for public education–if sometimes a stern, underfunded version of it–used to be a hallmark of Establishment Republicans, particularly at the state level. But for the sake of honesty, I do wish conservatives would stop pretending that recent GOP education initiatives like George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind law were some sort of godless departure from conservative orthodoxy. The forces opposing public education in the Republican Party have existed for quite some time, but only recently did they achieve mainstream respectability, and then dominance. Pols like Romney are just now catching up. But after all, this anti-school bus has been moving at well beyond the speed limit.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.