GOP education reform gets trampled by Trumpmania

Six months ago, it looked like conservative education thought would enjoy a renaissance in the race for the GOP presidential nod. Education was the signature issue of early front-runner Jeb Bush, former Florida governor, who always returned to his gubernatorial school reform record when making the case for brand of can-do, conservative leadership. Govs. Scott Walker (Wis.) and Chris Christie (N.J.) pointed to their fights with the teacher unions as evidence of their willingness to do the hard stuff. Sen. Rand Paul (Ky.) talked about school choice in urban centers as a way to explain the relevance of conservative solutions for low-income and minority communities. Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.) made reforming higher education an emblem of his focus on middle-class concerns. Contestants seeking to be the face of a sunnier conservatism viewed education reform as the perfect way to talk about their ideas for expanding opportunity and promoting inclusive growth.

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Last winter, the race was shaping up to be an upbeat contest to see which conservative reformer could put forward the most compelling approach to expand opportunity. Education has always been the essential foundation for any vision of opportunity-expanding conservatism. Rubio and Bush have called for taking on the higher education cartel, while the Republican field features governors who have championed a slew of interesting school choice proposals. This is all accompanied by important questions about how much of this a conservative president should take on from Washington and what to do about the cost of college and the Common Core.

All of this has been drowned out by the ascendance of Donald TrumpDonald TrumpTrump's proposed ban on Muslims entering US a moving target Clinton camp blasts Trump over Brexit response: 'He patted himself on the back' Trump shifts immigration plan: No 'mass deportations' MORE. Two major GOP debates have now passed, and education has barely made an appearance. More tellingly, the very tenor of the GOP race has shifted in a way that has made such appeals seem quaint. Amidst Trump's bombast and the "hell-with-'em-all" frustration that has propelled outsiders, measured talk about education improvement can seem out of touch, like the candidate is missing the big picture.

Six months ago, it looked like the GOP campaign was going to highlight and sharpen policy thinking, while giving conservative proposals an opportunity to coalesce. It offered a chance to illuminate some of the sharp conservative thinking that's been quietly unfolding on Capitol Hill — as with the sensible rewrite of No Child Left Behind that is currently in process — and to show that Republicans could offer practical alternatives to bureaucratic, budget-busting Democratic proposals on issues like college affordability and early childhood.

But that all gave way to a summer of ad hominem attacks and talk of Mexican rapists. Now, don't misunderstand. GOP presidential candidates have no obligation to focus on education, especially when they're wrestling with high-profile questions ranging from the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) to the Iran deal.

But it's hard to see how candidates can talk seriously about personal responsibility, opportunity or American leadership without also talking about the education needed to make those things a reality. This is especially true for Republicans seeking to make the case for less redistribution, less government and a less expansive safety net.

Before the summer of Trump, this was shaping up to be a remarkably fruitful year for conservative thinking on education and opportunity. Fortunately, the campaign still has a long way to go.

Hess is director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute.

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